Screened as part of the “Snapshots of London” season at the Barbican, Pressure is a remarkably dynamic snapshot, capturing a London in flux. The generational divide, between first- and second-generation Trinidadian immigrants, is particularly powerfully captured. Each side, repressed by police and prejudice, fights in its own way against inner-city racism, and there doesn’t seem to be much of a way out except the granular grace afforded by younger white people.
This was the movie with which Horace Ové made his name: it was the first feature film to be directed by a black Brit. This fact received little fanfare at the time of production, and although born of a constellation of formidable talents – it was co-written by The Lonely Londoners author Sam Selvon, with producer Rob Buckler meeting Ové through playwright Mustapha Matura – it was funded by the BFI on a shoestring budget. (The screening I attended was followed by a Q&A with Buckler, who expressed resentment towards Britain’s more opaque and un-cooperative production companies, including the BBC: “They don’t axe things, they suffocate them”.)
Ové’s style, as is unsurprising given the film’s historical context, is rhetorical and often dialectical. Shots of adolescent Trinidadian protagonist Tony Walsh (Herbert Norville) winding his way through a local market early in the movie are intercut with shots of only white people. Since Tony is the only black figure in the scene, it’s his alienation that is striking: we’re made to almost physically feel his blackness. But black/white isn’t the only dichotomy under the microscope: a scene of a Black Power assembly, convened by Tony’s proudly Trinidadian brother Colin, is intercut with shots of Tony being staunchly apolitical with his white friends at a local nightclub. There’s also the aforementioned first-generation/second-generation dichotomy.
Despite the film’s on-the-nose handling of troubling topics, it feels like it’s from a more innocent time. “What’s wrong with eggs, bacon and Gary Glitter?” Tony asks the disapproving Colin, 40 years before the glam-rocker was jailed for child sexual abuse – abuse that began around the time Pressure was being filmed. There’s also a surreal, unintentionally amusing Lindsay Anderson-esque interlude in which our hero takes a sharp knife, dons a brown leather jacket, makes his way to a National Trust property, finds himself naked, sees something moving in a bed, stabs it repeatedly, and pulls back the covers to reveal a pig. This probably seemed dated even in the ’70s, and is just about excusable on the grounds that Tony had ingested a lot of weed the night before.
But such missteps are easily forgiven: the film is exploding with themes that are, thanks to dexterous writing, all linked in the complex, self-perpetuating system that is the film’s milieu. Fraternity, family, radicalisation, immigration, national and personal identity, politics, racism, housing, deprivation, enjoyment, scapegoating, media manipulation, protest – none of these go unexamined, and all are seamlessly blended.
Modern-day British viewers will smile when noticing the ’70s antecedents of several of our beloved cultural mainstays. KFC is spelt in full, in an italicised serif font, burgundy on off-white. And clearly, Encona sauce has been around for ages. Food comes to represent much in the film; several people taunt Tony about his preference for fish and chips over the West Indian food his mother makes him.
It’s also heartening to see, in the first feature film by a black Brit, several female characters with depth. Tony’s white girlfriend Sheila and American rabble-rouser Sister Louisa are the film’s most fiery, forthright characters. “Fucking hypocrite!” says Sheila to her landlady when the latter refuses Tony entry. “Why didn’t you tell him the reason to his face? Scared he was gonna rape you?” Later on, Sister Louisa gives an amazingly articulate speech about the structures of oppression, and gets mad when, at her digs, one of her “rasclat” associates is passing a joint around.
Many of the white youth are sympathetic, if naïve. Though Sheila stands up for Tony against racism in no uncertain terms, one of the white protesters carries a placard saying “Death to all white people”. Several tell Tony “You people have it easy”, thinking that Tony is happy being unemployed. The Labour Exchange is useless. The message is clear: a well-qualified black is worth as much as an unqualified white. Naturally, the market disagrees, because markets see profits, not race. But the powers-that-be see race.
These powers-that-be are often dealt with humorously. When Tony goes job-hunting, one of his prospective employers resembles one of the more unsavoury characters from The League of Gentlemen. It’s clear he was expecting a white guy, and when Tony tells him that his favourite game is football and that he was never into cricket, we see the lad’s lack of whiteness push the job gently out of his hands.
But there’s a real pathos here, and it’s related to Tony’s relationship with his parents, which is at the film’s heart. They gave up a lot to come to England, and lost much by coming; but Tony’s being born in England does not change his skin colour. Hence, it doesn’t change his job prospects. His mother, the more impassioned parent and the one with the thickest accent, is the one who wanted to immigrate and assimilate unquestioningly, willing to clean the houses of white people in order to earn money for her son’s education – but also in order to be around white people. When Tony eventually and explosively makes clear his views on this, she is left dumbfounded.
Despite all these emotions, the film is defiantly funny. There is a wealth of memorable lines, and plenty of slang – including “rasclat” – that survives 40 years later. The warbling voice of Tony’s mother telling him to get a job is familiar today, though the structure of oppression has shifted: class oppression rather than racial oppression is now the order of the day.
Part of the film’s wit inheres in the manner of its making. One scene in a church is filmed with documentary realism; there’s a kid who has clearly never seen a camera crew before, and stares at the camera blankly. Ové didn’t bother removing this shot, and the film is richer for it. Meanwhile, the preacher, who is black, intones: “Cleanse your heart of blackness, and instead focus on good, white, clean thoughts.” The racial subtext is painful, and indeed one character snorts: “Black people go to church, and ask forgiveness from a white man? Cha!”
The film’s brief final scene is of an anti-racism protest outside the Old Bailey. We end on a freeze-frame of the Statue of Justice, a white woman, sword in one hand, scales in the other, impartial. Filmed at street level, the sodden protesters seem so close to us, and the white woman so far away.