What would our Pressure be?

Watching Horace Ové’s watershed 1975 film of Black British life today represents a communal opportunity to bridge the gap between then and now, says UCL’s Clive Nwonka.

3 November 2023

By Clive Nwonka

Pressure (1975) © Horace Ové

In watching Pressure (1975), the landmark film exploring the experiences of young Black people within Ladbroke Grove’s West Indian community, there’s an inevitable sense of both loss and resistance, given the recent death of the great Trinidadian-born filmmaker Sir Horace Ové and the pioneering nature of Ové’s masterpiece. The recent obituaries were united in seeing it as the seminal work of a groundbreaking filmmaker.

The film tells the story of British teenager Tony (Herbert Norville), an unemployed school leaver whose west London life is captured so vibrantly and viscerally by Ové’s cinematic style, which combines documentary-realism with moments of surrealist dream sequences. His existence is an endless struggle: to bridge the generational differences between him and his Trinidadian parents, and the ideological differences between him and his older, radical brother; but it’s also a struggle to face the realities of Black acceptance and assimilation within a racist British society, and the nuances of Black radical responses to police brutality and racial injustice.

Pressure (1975)
Restoration by BFI National Archive/The Film Foundation

Despite being completed and premiered in 1975, Pressure’s theatrical release would be delayed by nearly three years due to bureaucratic wranglings by the film’s distributor, the BFI, which had financially supported the film through its Production Board, although the story has persisted that the hold up was due to concerns about Pressure’s brave depictions of violent anti-Black policing and Black resistance.

Like so many scholars of Black cinema, in watching Pressure for the first time as a student and emerging academic, the film opened up a cinematic and social world that seemed to have been hidden and pushed out from the mainstream of British film culture and education. Repeated viewings and writing about the film as a Black person within higher education became a form of Black resistance and radical participation, but also an essential rite of passage. To understand British cinema, and Black British cinema specifically, we needed to first understand Pressure.

It feels customary to describe Ové’s film – along with movies such as Franco Rosso’s Babylon (1980), Menelik Shabazz’s Burning an Illusion (1981), John Akomfrah’s Handsworth Songs (1986) and other defining Black British films of the 70s and 80s – in terms of realism, accuracy and, most importantly, relevance. By this, I mean the ways we can find easy but often uncomfortable associations and familiarities between the Black past and the Black present; where Black cinema of this period serves as an analogue to the uninterrupted anti-Black struggles that we face in contemporary Britain.

Such films are often discussed as a means to measure how far, or not so far at all, Black people’s conditions of existence have changed since the times captured in these influential works. Each of these films, alongside other unrecognised, unchampioned and forgotten texts, have also contributed to our understanding of the political intent of Black British cinema in both fictional and documentary form, depicting experiences that are identified with and felt by Black people in the present. It makes such films valuable as historical documents that both provide older audiences with a visual access point to a recognisable past and provide new generations of Black people with glimpses of an often neglected and unseen period of their cultural heritage.

But I’ve always believed that there is a much more aesthetic and cultural value to be derived from our experiences of historical Black British cinema. It goes beyond lamenting the way things were and the way things are. In many ways, the new restoration and re-release of Pressure requires a Black collective revisitation of the Black social and visual past within the communal space of the cinema. It allows for an engagement with Ové’s 1970s Black west London that bridges the distance between then and now in terms of technology, and makes such Black experiences more palatable and immediate to new audiences.

Pressure (1975)
Restoration by BFI National Archive/The Film Foundation

During the Q&A session after a preview screening of Pressure at the launch of the tragically timed Horace Ové retrospective at BFI Southbank, the month after he died, I opened by asking one of the panellists, Annabelle Alcazar, a former wife of Ové and one of Pressure’s producers, about the difference in the experience of watching this restored version of Pressure compared with the original version in the mid 70s. For Alcazar, within the expansive space of the theatre in NFT1, it was akin to watching a completely different film. Its 4K restoration seemed to have produced a new and unexpected way of encountering and absorbing Pressure, even for someone with such proximity to the original film and filmmaker, and who can easily recollect the social world it depicts and so powerfully critiques.

At the end of the session, I turned the panel’s attention to a group of young Black people sitting in the audience. I’d invited members of The Avenues Youth Project, a predominantly Black youth organisation based on the Harrow Road in west London, the very area depicted in Pressure as a locus of the Black community. The Avenues was established in 1979 to offer informal education and recreational opportunities for young people from the local Afro-Caribbean community who, as we can rightly imagine, were experiencing the very forms of ‘pressure’ that consumed the film’s protagonist Tony within the same streets. Of course, similar forms of Black struggle remain.

I invited them because I felt the film may resonate with them, in seeing their immediate environments and experiences depicted on screen in the 70s, with all the sense of cultural recognition and importance that such a screening provides. Turning to the panel, I asked them to indulge in a utopian question. If we were somehow able to navigate the still racially unequal terrain of the UK film industry and convince those charged with funding British cinema to invest in a film project that attempts to revisit Ové’s thematic and aesthetic interests, what would be produced? If we were to make another Pressure, what would the film concern? What would the Black experience in west London in 2023 look like, and how would the young Black people such as those who I had drawn attention to be represented? What would their ‘pressure’ be, and how would this be conveyed formally and narratively?

Pressure (1975)
Restoration by BFI National Archive/The Film Foundation

As you might expect, the panel offered various responses to the question, all informed by their respective positions as producer, filmmaker, actor and writer. But for the young Black people of Tony’s west London in attendance, the experience of watching Pressure in its restored form seemed to reduce the representational distance between the Black west London of 1975 and 2023; their pressure was already identifiable in the film. This may be the distinctive legacy left by Ové as we revisit Pressure today.

“I believe that film is an art,” Ové once said, “and I’m interested in experimenting and taking it further.” As the Power to the People season celebrates, his work did just that: advancing film both as an artform and as a radical tool of experimentation and representation. Pressure’s continued relevance is not simply because the Black Britain it depicts persists, but because it has the power to unify cross-generational audiences. They may come into the cinema with different expectations and levels of knowledge of the film and its themes, but they leave with a collective sense of Ové’s powerful statement on the conditions of multiple Black existences.

By illuminating history, he brings the Black past into the Black present. And in doing so, we are encouraged to collectively participate in Ové’s radical vision in the contemporary moment. We need these communal cinematic encounters more than ever.

Pressure is back in cinemas in a 4K restoration from 3 November. It has been restored by the BFI National Archive and The Film Foundation, with funding provided by the Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation, with additional thanks to the BFI Philanthropy Pioneers of Black British Filmmaking consortium.

Power to the People: Horace Ové’s Radical Vision plays at BFI Southbank in October and November 2023.

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