Pressure notes by Joel Karamath
Published on: Mar 4, 2016
Transcripts - Pressure notes by Joel Karamath
Collective Identity – Pressure (Horace Ove, 1976)1The following comments by Joel Karamath (film curator and critic) might help you when you arewatching the films (these notes also refer to another film called Burning An Illusion which wewill not be seeing).With racial tensions, after years of simmering, finally erupting across Britains inner cities inplaces like Liverpools Toxteth, Bristols St. Pauls, Birminghams Handsworth and at the NottingHill Carnival in London, Margaret Thatchers axiom theres no such thing as society seemed toring particularly true for a whole generation of black British youth.The ensuing social unrest was juxtaposed with, and to some extent exacerbated by, tensionsbetween first and second generation immigrants. The originally optimistic, often middle-classimmigrant sensibilities of the Windrush generation was transformed into a predominantlypessimistic, working- and under-class, notion of black Britishness (Commission on the Future ofMulti-Ethnic Britain: Report) of the first fully Anglo-Caribbean generation to have come of agein Britain. Each film also set the tone for a series of productions that would re-evaluate what itmeant to be black in Britain, from a stridently militant point of view. Previously, productionsSapphire(Basil Dearden, 1959, UK) and Flame in the Streets(Ray Barker, 1961, UK) took a liberalstance, viewing the situation of Britains demographic change, from the mainstreamperspective and still clinging to paternalist attitudes of race and class that seemed somewhatbeholden to a bygone era and sensibility.Both Pressure and Burning an Illusion were released in the wake of black exploitation cinemaspeak in the mid 1970s and well after the political impact of the genres early films had beensoftened by formulaic storylines, in an attempt to appeal, as the studios saw it, to a broadermainstream audience. With the revolutionary zeal and counter cultural stance of Sweet,Sweetbacks Baadasssss Song (Melvin Van Peebles, 1971, USA), Superfly (Gordon Parks, 1972,USA) and The Spook Who Sat by the Door (Ivan Dixon, 1973, USA), giving way to heroines andheroes who, though black and hip, forewent the radical content, ghetto politics and activismof their forerunners in favour of an inherently ghetto aesthetic. Just like the commercialisedgangsta rap formula at its worst, with the procession of pimps, pushers and hoodlums, thatcame to personify them, black exploitation films were a means to their own ends, seeking tocarve a niche for themselves within the system, not trying to overthrow or transform it.
Collective Identity – Pressure (Horace Ove, 1976)2While characters such as Sweetback (in Sweet, Sweetbacks Baadasssss Song), Priest (inSuperfly) and Dan Freeman (in Spook) became disillusioned, then challenged and ultimatelyusurped the system, the protagonists in films like Shaft (Gordon Parks, 1971 USA), Foxy Brown(Jack Hill, 1974, USA) and Cleopatra Jones (Jack Starrett, 1973, USA) were, no matter howmarginal, part of the system and operated to uphold the status quo.It is against this backdrop that both Pressure and Burning an Illusion need to be considered, inthe light of the black independent and studio representations of the African Americanexperience, which manifest themselves in the form of black exploitation cinema, and the shiftfrom the Civil Rights Movement to Black Power which helped to fuel the subsequentdevelopment of a black British identity and screen presence. The protagonists in both moviesundergo a political awakening, reminiscent of Sweetbacks and Priests, but are grounded in astridently social realist structure, beholden to British cinema, that distances itself from theaction-packed Hollywood formula of even the most radical black exploitation movie. For moreinformation about the pioneers of black filmmaking in Britain go to screenonline.As with any movie, the reading of these films changes as its context shifts with time. In the 30years since Pressure was produced and released into a cultural milieu of rising unemployment,social unrest and racial instability much has changed. On the one hand, the emphatic andcontinued mainstream success of black popular culture in Britain, particularly in sports, arts andentertainment, has sparked a more highbrow contemporary interest, as witnessed by recentexhibitions, Black British Style at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Africa Remix at the HaywoodGallery and the forthcoming West Indian Front Room: Three generations of change in the blackBritish home at the Geffrye Museum.On the other hand, despite the positive presence of black MPs and cabinet ministers, many ofthe old millstones still weigh heavily around the neck of black Britain. Issues such as policevictimisation, limited job prospects and continued failure within and by the education system,highlighted in Pressure and Burning an Illusion, have been constantly recurring themes, virtuallydefinitive of black British youth culture today.
Collective Identity – Pressure (Horace Ove, 1976)3Introducing Pressure and Burning an Illusion: Coming-of-age filmsFilms, like all narrative forms, often contain several layers of meaning, commenting on a widerange of issues relevant to society as a whole, while channelling them through specific, oftenpersonal themes. For example, A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971, UK) and MyBeautiful Laundrette (Stephen Frears, 1985, UK) focus on the travails of charismatic young men,while also tapping into some of the broader cultural and political themes of Britain when thefilms were produced.Similarly, both Pressure and Burning an Illusion can be seen as coming-of-age movies, each filmconcerned, primarily, with the social awakenings of young, black British men and women.Equally they focus upon the changing social, political and cultural climate of Britain in the 1970sand 80s, where these young people were growing up.Both films ask us to consider what is meant by the term culture, and this is often moreproblematic than it initially sounds. In Key Words (1976), Raymond Williams argues thatculture is one of the most difficult words in the English language to define. Superficially, it is aword that we all know and use with some degree of expertise. Even if we dont like fine art orlisten to classical music we would still usually define them as high culture, whereas thepopular music and films many of us consume on a daily basis are usually given less status. InBritish cinema, this vertical, high/low notion of culture is often associated with the issue ofclass, though in Pressure and Burning an Illusion class anxieties are often intertwined orreplaced with racial self-awareness and the subsequent underlying tensions. (For moreinformation about this genre of British films go to screenonline.As with Clockwork Orange and My Beautiful Laundrette, Pressure and Burning an Illusion areconcerned with and attempt to address the plight of British youth, who are a conduit (via theirclass, race or sexuality) for some of the larger traumas that beset Britain during the post-warperiod - an ex-Empire coming to terms with its relegated world status amidst risingunemployment and, at best, a wildly fluctuating economy. In this milieu the first generation ofblack Britons came of age, at a time when they and the nation as a whole were trying to (re-)define themselves to each other and to the world at large.
Collective Identity – Pressure (Horace Ove, 1976)4In Pressure and Burning an Illusion the shifting of these cultural boundaries manifestthemselves in a variety of ways, some more obvious and consequential than others. However, itshould also be noted that the way in which we view culture is not static and how we react to orinterpret something now maybe very different from how it was received at the time and thisshould be considered when analysing any film.In both films, overtly political issues such as police harassment, blatant racism, poor housingand discrimination in the workforce are juxtaposed with the more subtle aspects of popularculture such as food, language, music and fashion. These have all ultimately made majorcontributions in the formation of a black popular cultural renaissance, now beginning to receivefull critical attention for its impact on the mainstream.Like all cultural artefacts, both Pressure and Burning an Illusion speak volumes about the timesin which they were produced. To contemporary audiences, they may seem dated particularly asthey were made to a tight budget, but they nevertheless hold a certain resonance for anyonewho grew up in the 1970s. Much has changed in the three decades after the first black Britishfeature film went into production, and while we can look back with a certain degree ofsatisfaction it would be wise to remember that much has also stayed the same.
Collective Identity – Pressure (Horace Ove, 1976)5Questions to be answered about Pressure (Hove, 1976)1. What event occurred in the 1970s and 1980s thatrepresent the presence of racial tensions?2. Why do you think Pressure was made?3. What examples of racism are represented inPressure?4. How does the theme of collective identity comeacross in Pressure?5. How do you think Pressure differs from mainstreamrepresentations of black Britons?Make notes on the following:Food• Watch Pressure, particularly paying attention to the way food is used in the film, forexample, in the breakfast scene and/or the scene in Portobello Road Market. Thinkabout what kind of tensions the use of food reflects, and why the director uses it in thisway. What is signified by Tonys preference for chips?Windrush vs post-Windrush• How is the conflict between these two generations represented in the film? ConsiderTony’s relationship with his parents and friendsRacial Tensions• How did the film communicate the racial tensions of the time? Consider Tony’sinterview, the police, Tony’s brother and his militant activities.“Although there is no consensualdefinition of collective identity,discussions of the concept invariablysuggest that its essence resides in ashared sense of one-ness or we-ness anchored in real or imaginedshared attributes and experiencesamong those who comprise thecollectivity and in relation or contrastto one or more actual or imaginedsets of others."Collective Identity and ExpressiveForms - David Snow