Why this might not seem so easy
If Horace Ové’s filmography had consisted of only his first feature, he’d still be assured of a significant place in cinema history. As the first feature-length film made by a Black director in Britain, Ové’s Pressure (1975) had a huge impact. Exploring with exceptional empathy and intelligence the experiences of West Indian immigrants through a focus on a teenage protagonist born in Britain to parents from Trinidad, the film’s influence was profound and is still felt today.
Pressure undoubtedly made its director a pioneer. But Ové was also aware that an emphasis on stats and ‘firsts’ can be reductive, tokenising or homogenising the work of Black and other minority filmmakers. “For me a director is a director no matter what colour he [sic] is,” Ové averred. “Here in England there is a danger, if you are Black, that all you are allowed to make is films about Black people and their problems.”
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A painter, photographer, producer and writer as well as a filmmaker, Ové always resisted being pigeonholed as an artist. The centring of characters of colour remained a vital element of his output, but he tended to perceive his eclectic work in terms of abiding themes. “I’m interested in people that are trapped, Black, white, whatever race,” he said. “That is what attracts me: the trap that we are all in and how we try to get out of it.”
That stance may be due, in part, to Ové’s background. Born in 1936 in Belmont, a suburb of Port of Spain, Trinidad, he grew up as part of what he described as a “somewhat bohemian family – a mixture of African, Indian, French and Spanish.” In 1960, Ové left for London to study, and a period in Rome, in which he worked as an extra on the set of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra (1963), also proved formative, introducing him to the work of neorealist and modernist filmmakers.
Returning to London, Ové studied at the London School of Film Technique (now London Film School), and in 1966 directed The Art of the Needle, a short film for the Acupuncture Association. Documentary would remain an important strand of his work. But, though the difficulties of gaining funding stalled several promising projects, Ové always ranged as widely as possible, directing theatre and TV (including episodes of the groundbreaking Empire Road series) as well as film, and pursuing his many other creative interests.
The show Get Up, Stand Up Now: Generations of Black Creative Pioneers, curated by his artist son Zak at Somerset House in 2019, took Ové’s archive as its starting point. Having been knighted in 2022, the director’s death in September this year came at a poignant time, as a retrospective of his films opens at BFI Southbank, and Pressure, newly restored, is re-released. It makes this an especially appropriate moment to undertake a journey through Ové’s unique and vital work for the screen.
The best place to start – Pressure
Bearing the influence of Ové’s engagement with Italian neorealism, Pressure remains a singularly powerful film, urgent and honest in its commitment to documenting the difficulties and disillusionment faced by British-born Black youth. It’s set in 1970s Ladbroke Grove, where the film’s protagonist Tony (excellent Herbert Norville), the son of West Indian immigrants, finds himself frustrated by limited prospects and torn between his parents’ conformity and his brother’s Black Power militancy. Ové and Samuel Selvon’s screenplay is forthright but nuanced in its depiction of Tony’s political awakening, brilliantly broadening an intimate family portrait of generational conflict into a wider social critique – and kicking off a continuum of Black British cinema in the process.
What to watch next
The next essential stop on a journey with Ové’s work is his second feature for the cinema. Playing Away (1986) is an Ealing-esque comedy of manners with a sharply contemporary attitude, about the arrival of a Brixton-based cricket team of West Indian heritage in an English village, where they’ve been invited to play a charity match. Caryl Phillips’ shrewd script mines the encounter both for culture-clash comedy and poignant reflections on identity, belonging and thwarted ambitions, demonstrating its intelligence by highlighting divisions within each social group, not just between them. Spot-on performances from an ensemble including Norman Beaton, Nicholas Farrell, Helen Lindsay, Brian Bovell and Robert Urquhart create a fully inhabited, charming but still biting comedy.
A Hole in Babylon (1979) is also unmissable, a Play for Today about the 1975 ‘Spaghetti House Siege’, in which three Black men robbed an Italian restaurant in Knightsbridge; it’s told through an innovative drama documentary form and intricate flashback structure. Complicating media constructions of the group, Ové’s film fleshes out each protagonist with an individual history and political consciousness.
Ové’s documentaries offer rich rewards too, from Skateboard Kings (1978), about pioneering Californian skateboarders, to Dabbawallahs (1985), about the men and women who bring lunches to Bombay’s office workers. Filmed at the West Indian Students’ Centre, the more widely seen Baldwin’s Nigger (1969) captures James Baldwin and civil rights activist and comedian Dick Gregory discussing Black experience and identity in Britain and the US, with questions from a spirited audience. Ové followed it with Reggae (1971), a record of the 1970 Caribbean Music Festival at Wembley, which combines joyous performance footage with fans’ reflections on the music; it’s nicely complemented by King Carnival (1973), about the history and practice of Trinidad and Tobago Carnival.
Ové’s abiding concern with the interaction of different cultures and social groups is approached via heritage tropes in The Orchid House series (1991), made for Channel 4, an intriguing four-part adaptation of a classic work of West Indian literature: Phyllis Shand Allfrey’s 1953 novel. The focus is the return of a war-traumatised patriarch (Nigel Terry) and, later, his three daughters (Kate Buffery, Frances Barber and Elizabeth Hurley) to their home in Dominica; the events are mostly presented from the perspective of the girls’ former nurse (Madge Sinclair) and placed in the context of the islanders’ struggle against colonial rule. Handsomely filmed on location, the series never achieved the impact of, say, The Jewel in the Crown (1984), but it’s ripe for rediscovery.
Where not to start
With Ové, it’s less a case of where not to start than of where it’s not possible to start. “Some of his best work has vanished,” lamented his son Zak. “I started pulling his stuff out of storage because otherwise it was going to be lost, and it’s really important to people like me, of dual heritage in Britain.” Indeed, productions as diverse as Coleherne Jazz and Keskidee Blues (1972), capturing a Sunday lunchtime music session at The Coleherne pub in Earl’s Court; When Love Dies (1990), about the fallout of a troubled marriage; and The Ghost of Hing King Estate (2009), a supernatural thriller made in Trinidad, following Ové’s return to live there, have seldom been screened since their initial broadcasts or releases. Given the contemporary interest in Ové, it’s to be hoped that some of these neglected works will be made more accessible, allowing for an even fuller sense of the breadth of the output of one of Britain’s most original and important filmmakers.
Power to the People: Horace Ové’s Radical Vision plays at BFI Southbank in October and November 2023.
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.
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