1. CollectiveIdentity –Pressure (Horace Ove, 1976)
The following comments by Joel Karamath (film curator and critic) might help you when you are
watching the films (these notes also refer to another film called Burning An Illusion which we
will not be seeing).
With racial tensions, after years of simmering, finally erupting across Britain's inner cities in
places like Liverpool's Toxteth, Bristol's St. Paul's, Birmingham's Handsworth and at the Notting
Hill Carnival in London, Margaret Thatcher's axiom 'there's no such thing as society' seemed to
ring particularly true for a whole generation of black British youth.
The ensuing social unrest was juxtaposed with, and to some extent exacerbated by, tensions
between first and second generation immigrants. The originally optimistic, often middle-class
immigrant sensibilities of the Windrush generation was transformed into a predominantly
pessimistic, working- and under-class, notion of black Britishness (Commission on the Future of
Multi-Ethnic Britain: Report) of the first fully Anglo-Caribbean generation to have come of age
in Britain. Each film also set the tone for a series of productions that would re-evaluate what it
meant to be black in Britain, from a stridently militant point of view. Previously, productions
Sapphire(Basil Dearden, 1959, UK) and Flame in the Streets(Ray Barker, 1961, UK) took a liberal
stance, viewing the situation of Britain's demographic change, from the mainstream
perspective and still clinging to paternalist attitudes of race and class that seemed somewhat
beholden to a bygone era and sensibility.
Both Pressure and Burning an Illusion were released in the wake of black exploitation cinema's
peak in the mid 1970s and well after the political impact of the genre's early films had been
softened by formulaic storylines, in an attempt to appeal, as the studios saw it, to a broader
mainstream audience. With the revolutionary zeal and counter cultural stance of Sweet,
Sweetback's 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 and
heroes who, though 'black and hip', forewent the radical content, ghetto politics and activism
of their forerunners in favour of an inherently ghetto aesthetic. Just like the commercialised
gangsta rap formula at its worst, with the procession of pimps, pushers and hoodlums, that
came to personify them, black exploitation films were a means to their own ends, seeking to
carve a niche for themselves within the system, not trying to overthrow or transform it.
2. CollectiveIdentity –Pressure (Horace Ove, 1976)
While characters such as Sweetback (in Sweet, Sweetback's Baadasssss Song), Priest (in
Superfly) and Dan Freeman (in Spook) became disillusioned, then challenged and ultimately
usurped 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 how
marginal, 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, in
the light of the black independent and studio representations of the African American
experience, which manifest themselves in the form of black exploitation cinema, and the shift
from the Civil Rights Movement to Black Power which helped to fuel the subsequent
development of a black British identity and screen presence. The protagonists in both movies
undergo a political awakening, reminiscent of Sweetback's and Priest's, but are grounded in a
stridently social realist structure, beholden to British cinema, that distances itself from the
action-packed Hollywood formula of even the most radical black exploitation movie. For more
information 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 30
years 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 and
continued mainstream success of black popular culture in Britain, particularly in sports, arts and
entertainment, has sparked a more highbrow contemporary interest, as witnessed by recent
exhibitions, Black British Style at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Africa Remix at the Haywood
Gallery and the forthcoming West Indian Front Room: Three generations of change in the black
British home at the Geffrye Museum.
On the other hand, despite the positive presence of black MPs and cabinet ministers, many of
the old millstones still weigh heavily around the neck of black Britain. Issues such as police
victimisation, limited job prospects and continued failure within and by the education system,
highlighted in Pressure and Burning an Illusion, have been constantly recurring themes, virtually
definitive of black British youth culture today.
3. CollectiveIdentity –Pressure (Horace Ove, 1976)
Introducing Pressure and Burning an Illusion: Coming-of-age films
Films, like all narrative forms, often contain several layers of meaning, commenting on a wide
range of issues relevant to society as a whole, while channelling them through specific, often
personal themes. For example, A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971, UK) and My
Beautiful 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 the
films were produced.
Similarly, both Pressure and Burning an Illusion can be seen as coming-of-age movies, each film
concerned, 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 1970s
and 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 more
problematic than it initially sounds. In Key Words (1976), Raymond Williams argues that
'culture' is one of the most difficult words in the English language to define. Superficially, it is a
word that we all know and use with some degree of expertise. Even if we don't like fine art or
listen to classical music we would still usually define them as 'high culture', whereas the
'popular' music and films many of us consume on a daily basis are usually given less status. In
British cinema, this vertical, high/low notion of culture is often associated with the issue of
class, though in Pressure and Burning an Illusion class anxieties are often intertwined or
replaced with racial self-awareness and the subsequent underlying tensions. (For more
information about this genre of British films go to screenonline.
As with Clockwork Orange and My Beautiful Laundrette, Pressure and Burning an Illusion are
concerned with and attempt to address the plight of British youth, who are a conduit (via their
class, race or sexuality) for some of the larger traumas that beset Britain during the post-war
period - an ex-Empire coming to terms with its relegated world status amidst rising
unemployment and, at best, a wildly fluctuating economy. In this milieu the first generation of
black 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.
4. CollectiveIdentity –Pressure (Horace Ove, 1976)
In Pressure and Burning an Illusion the shifting of these cultural boundaries manifest
themselves in a variety of ways, some more obvious and consequential than others. However, it
should also be noted that the way in which we view culture is not static and how we react to or
interpret something now maybe very different from how it was received at the time and this
should be considered when analysing any film.
In both films, overtly political issues such as police harassment, blatant racism, poor housing
and discrimination in the workforce are juxtaposed with the more subtle aspects of popular
culture such as food, language, music and fashion. These have all ultimately made major
contributions in the formation of a black popular cultural renaissance, now beginning to receive
full critical attention for its impact on the mainstream.
Like all cultural artefacts, both Pressure and Burning an Illusion speak volumes about the times
in which they were produced. To contemporary audiences, they may seem dated particularly as
they were made to a tight budget, but they nevertheless hold a certain resonance for anyone
who grew up in the 1970s. Much has changed in the three decades after the first black British
feature film went into production, and while we can look back with a certain degree of
satisfaction it would be wise to remember that much has also stayed the same.
5. CollectiveIdentity –Pressure (Horace Ove, 1976)
Questions to be answered about Pressure (Hove, 1976)
1. What event occurred in the 1970s and 1980s that
represent the presence of racial tensions?
2. Why do you think Pressure was made?
3. What examples of racism are represented in
4. How does the theme of collective identity come
across in Pressure?
5. How do you think Pressure differs from mainstream
representations of black Britons?
Make notes on the following:
Watch Pressure, particularly paying attention to the way food is used in the film, for
example, in the breakfast scene and/or the scene in Portobello Road Market. Think
about what kind of tensions the use of food reflects, and why the director uses it in this
way. What is signified by Tony's preference for chips?
Windrush vs post-Windrush
How is the conflict between these two generations represented in the film? Consider
Tony’s relationship with his parents and friends
How did the film communicate the racial tensions of the time? Consider Tony’s
interview, the police, Tony’s brother and his militant activities.
“Although there is no consensual
definition of collectiveidentity,
discussions of the concept invariably
suggest that its essence resides in a
shared sense of 'one-ness' or 'we-
ness' anchored in real or imagined
shared attributes and experiences
among those who comprisethe
collectivity and in relation or contrast
to one or more actual or imagined
sets of 'others'."
CollectiveIdentity and Expressive
Forms - David Snow