Pressure review – pioneering story of living with British racism retains its power

Horace Ové’s fascinating, pioneering drama from 1975 is restored and re-released as part of a retrospective at London’s BFI Southbank. The first full-length black British film, Pressure is vigorous and rough-hewn and Ové lays down the broad brushstrokes with compulsive energy. It has the punchy quality of a 21st-century graphic novel, eagerly tackling Black Power and social realism, mixing comedy, tragedy and irony. There’s a surreal fantasy sequence, a moment of real horror in a hospital and a full-on Sweeney-style police foot-chase through the streets.

The reappearance of the film may evoke nostalgia for the 70s, but it also serves as a reminder that the struggles faced by Britain’s black communities have not diminished. With recent events like the New Cross fire, Stephen Lawrence’s case, and the “hostile environment” policy implemented by Teresa May, which resulted in the deportation of Windrush veterans, it becomes clear that these communities continue to face immense pressure. Watching the film now, after the 70th anniversary celebrations in 2018, feels eerie as we see the grim reality of pre-gentrified Ladbroke Grove depicted in vivid detail. Director Ové skillfully incorporates real people and street scenes in the background of his characters, creating a dreamlike atmosphere. There is a particularly memorable scene where an annoyed woman tries to pass through the scene while the characters are in dialogue.

The plot of Pressure centers around a Trinidadian family. The character of Lucas, portrayed by Frank Singuineau, is an immigrant from the Windrush generation and runs a small convenience store. He is married to the strong-willed Bopsie, played brilliantly by Lucita Lijertwood. Their two sons are Colin, portrayed with intense and commanding energy by Oscar James, and the timid and kind-hearted Tony (Herbert Norville), who is actively seeking employment and hoping to assimilate into white society. (Norville later delivered a remarkable performance in Jack Rosenthal’s drama The Chain.) As Tony becomes disillusioned, he becomes involved in criminal activities and joins Colin’s political circle. He also faces discrimination from both the police and the strict landlady of a white girl he had been romantically interested in.

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One of my favorite scenes in Pressure is when Tony interviews for a white-collar filing job in a worn-down government department. His presence immediately creates tension and discomfort among the staff as he is taken to the manager’s office for the interview. However, the manager’s secret porn stash provides a comedic break from the seriousness of the moment. It becomes evident that the staff was expecting a white candidate, and the interviewer must go through the motions of a fair assessment before dismissing Tony. The interview is prolonged by the manager’s fake politeness and insincere interest in Tony’s qualifications. It is a facade of rejection done in a polite manner.

Tony will ultimately discover a sense of belonging in the Black Power movement, and as the “English” boy who was born in England, he brings a crucial, intersectional perspective. In Britain, black individuals face discrimination alongside the working class’s experiences of exclusion and snobbery, while the latter are taught to harbor animosity towards black people as a means of boosting their own self-image. Colin also challenges capitalism and cultural norms when he presents an avocado (still considered a rare delicacy in 1975 Britain) and mentions that in Trinidad they are known as “zaboca” and are so abundant that they are fed to pigs. The pressure to conform still holds significant influence.