A couple of definitions of pressure:
”The influence or effect of someone or something”
”The use of persuasion or intimidation to make someone do something.”
‘We must demand bread, peace, dignity, and social justice for all men, be he White, or be he Black’ Pressure 1976
Horace Ové holds the Guinness World Record for being the first black British film-maker to direct a feature-length film, Pressure.
…The first black British film-maker to direct a first feature-length film – yep, that’s pressure.
A young black teenager; Tony, played by Herbert Norville in England endures discrimination despite his best efforts to blend in with white society. The complex confrontation with identity is laid out very bare in this document of history. Tony has very brief moments where he is oblivious to race and the struggles around him. It is when he leaves school that he is immediately stripped of the innocence of childhood and conditioned to be aware of difference and his place as an outsider in the extremely racist climate of Britain in the 1960/70’s.
The film begins with Tony’s mother making him bacon and eggs whilst listening to the radio. The presenter introduces Sharon Forester as a ‘lovely little lady from Jamaica’ that he says he’s been in love with for a long time. This is a powerful opening as it directly places this foreign family directly in the heart of British culture – a typical British breakfast with a witty radio DJ, describing an artist from the Caribbean. This exoticization of the artist is irksome.
Tony’s mum, Bopsie is played by Lucita Lijertwood who is fantastically compelling in her characterization. Aside from her incessant shouting and nagging, her character is important in highlighting the acceptance of reality. Her moralistic stance has its roots in the white ‘ideal’. To be white was to be powerful; to be strong; to be correct, therefore … it’s better to be on the right side of right, right?
Author and critic Akua Rugg writes of the film;
‘Ove is a pioneer, in that he is attempting, for the first time, to use the medium of film to reveal the inner soul of the black condition in Britain’. (Rugg, Akua. Brickbats & Bouquets. Pg. 17) With this, I think about the way that within the black condition in Britain, lies so many diverse experiences that Ové does such a brilliant job at realizing these nuances, in characters, on film.
What is brilliant in the film is the subtle presentation of white and black roles. The contrast is major, but the realism with which it’s shot, is sadly a snapshot of history. Ové works hard to not saturate the piece with bias as this would not achieve the same authenticity. For example; Mr Crepeson, who interviews Tony for a job early in the film in seen secretly looking at pornographic images in a book disguised in a business folder seconds before Tony’s arrival. The uptight secretary who helps Tony upon his arrival, takes pleasure in correcting Tony’s pronunciation of his interviewer’s name, only to introduce Tony as Anthony Watkins, rather than Watson. These subtle moments successfully showcase ignorance and privilege’s in the mundane, micro-aggressive ways that often go overlooked, still to this day.
Not only does Tony have to contend with generational disparity, with his parents pressuring him to work hard and not aim too high and then dealing with his brother trying to instill the ethos of the Black Panthers in him, but he is not afforded the same luxury as his white peers – to a basic quality of life.
Two thirds of the way through the films, Tony begins to navigate his societal position and individual aspirations. He was born in Britain and therefore identifies with British culture, only to be mocked by his brother for his choice of breakfast or colour of friends. He has no true bond with his parents as their experiences are worlds apart with Bopsie especially blind to the new generation’s plight. As a child of an immigrant, Tony has to ensure that his parents struggles were for a good cause.
Tony accompanies his white friends to a disco where he sees a female friend from school, Shiela.
They have a great night together and he walks her home. Sheila buys some chicken and chips as Tony has no money, due to the racist employers.
She then invites him into her new place, a room she rents in an older woman’s house, who Shiela describes as rather pleasant. It is upon their arrival at the house that the landlady is seen peeking from behind the curtain to see Tony, who she immediately tells to leave the premises. Sheila is confused and angry as the landlady has never had a problem with any other guests.
This clarity with which this racism occurs is very difficult to watch. Shiela begs Tony to stay, unaware of the consequences that would occur. He was already questioned by Mr Crepeson if he’d been in trouble with the police in that early job interview. This was expected of black youth in this era and Tony is very aware of it. He cannot do anything to further jeopardize his chances at employment.
On his walk back home, Tony walks by two police offers man-handling a black man into the police car. Tony is distressed by seeing this and it marks a turn in the film whereby Tony begins to experience first hand the reality within which he lives.
Another poignant moment in the film is when Tony’s house gets torn apart by police insisting Tony or his brother have drugs there, after a peaceful meetings gets raided violently be police and dogs. This tests Tony’s submissive attitude towards the racial tension he has experienced not-stop. He fully loses his keep calm and carry on mentality adopted from the racist motherland exclaims that his mum has just settled for the minimum quality of life.
Pressure brilliantly executes the director’s affiliation for Italian neo- and surrealism. These two styles balance a unique sense of alienation that is the lived reality of Tony as well as the surrealist scene that occurs in the second half of the film. Tony has a marijuana induced nightmare wherein he enters a large stately house and stabs a pig in a bed. This rich symbolism shrouds this scene and parallels the state of confusion at the injustice of racial conflict.
In this surrealist nightmare, the juxtaposition of the close up shots of gargoyles and statues, with the wide angle shot of the large pond in the park plays into the idea of perspective. How things may seem different than how they actually are. This symbolizes Tony’s previous ignorance towards the bigger picture. Now Tony realises that no matter how good you are at school, no matter how many jobs you apply for – the systemic status of black people in Britain during this era was enough to immobilize any growth..
The performances in Pressure were extremely organic as Ové was not afforded the largest budget and therefore made use of non-actors which in my opinion is what made the film feel like a true document of history. Akua Rugg also says;
‘Perhaps the greatest pleasure of the film was being able to watch black actors allowed the freedom to interpret their roles with authenticity and accuracy’. (Rugg, Akua. Brickbats & Bouquets. Pg. 19)
I really believe that Pressure is a worthwhile watch and recommend it to anyone who is unfamiliar with the racial climate of Britain, specifically regarding Windrush.
(relating to the people who emigrated from the Caribbean to the United Kingdom in the period between 1948 and 1971.)
How to watch Pressure: https://player.bfi.org.uk/subscription/film/watch-pressure-1975-online
Akua Rugg: Brickbats & Bouquets – Black Woman’s critique. Literature, theatre, film.
Stephen Bourne: Black in the British Frame. Black People in British Film and Television 1896-1996
Below is an interesting video on the 2019 exhibition Get Up, Stand Up at Somerset House.
This video provides an insight into the history of Black contribution to the arts. There is also a helpful insight in Horace Ove – as there is surprisingly not a plethora of literature on the director.