|Horaces life in black
The world has changed but there is still a role
for Black Power, film-maker Horace Ove tells Kim Janssen
FILM-MAKER Horace Ove, who is being honoured with a major retrospective
from today (Thursday) at the Barbican, boasts at least two major
firsts in his long and illustrious career.
US Black Power leader Stokeley Carmichael speaks at the
Chalk Farm Roundhouse in 1967
The better-known of the two is that he was the first black British
film-maker to direct a feature-length movie; the second, less well-known,
is that he opened Camden Towns first boutique in the early
Ove, a youthful 66-year-old Trinidadian, laughs as he explains:
It was called Du Du Boutique and it was in Parkway; me and
my wife had all the hip clothes before the market or any other shops
I had some hippy friends who decorated the shop and they painted
the outside with a giant dick!
No stranger to controversy, Oves first film, Pressure, was
banned for two years by its own backers, the British Film Institute
It tells the story of a British-born black do-gooder teenager who
joins the Black Power movement in 1970s Ladbroke Grove after a series
of humiliations at the hands of the white establishment.
The BFI top brass feared the films cinema verite depiction
of police brutality could prove incendiary before they belatedly
released it to widespread acclaim.
More than 30 years later, it is now releasing it on DVD.
Sitting in the sun in his daughter Indras garden in Archway,
he explains: People told me police brutality never happened
like that in Britain and I just had to say: Bullshit
I was there; I saw it.
At the time there were a lot of people who didnt know
what was really going on and I think the film frightened them for
By the time he made Pressure, Ove had already been documenting the
Black Power movement in Britain for some years, producing a documentary
about the visit of African American author James Baldwin, Baldwins
Nigger, in 1969, and a film for the BBC about the Trinidad Carnival,
the precursor to the Notting Hill Carnival, as well as pursuing
his other love, photography.
His break in film came after he was cast as an extra in the 1963
Joseph L Mankiewicz epic Cleopatra.
He said: They were filming in the winter in England and there
was a shortage of tanned people so they cast me as a Roman soldier.
But Elizabeth Taylor met Richard Burton during the shoot and
demanded that he replace the leading man, who they sacked.
She also said it was too cold in England so they moved it
to Rome where it was warmer and there was a ready supply of tanned
men so they made me a slave.
It was great because I got to see all the Italian films
all the neo-realists: De Sica, Antonioni and Fellini who all influenced
me to make the films I did.
Despite the polemical aspects of his films, Ove insists he always
stands apart from his subjects.
He said: Theres always that balance between art and
politics as a film-maker, novelist or any kind of artist
you have to understand what motivates people; that even the racist
has a problem which can be understood if you see where they are
Ive always tried to stand outside of the subject matter,
although Ive always been against racism and young black people
still have fewer opportunities than whites.
While he acknowledges that the inspirational black American leaders
of the 1960s and 1970s like Malcolm X and Stokeley Carmichael came
out of a brutal time that has now passed, he remains
disparaging of contemporary black politics in Britain. He says:
In black British politics there are still lot of things that
are missing, that are not said.
Politicians here are brought up to say things in such a polite,
intellectual and complicated way so that only other educated, intellectual
people understand, and nobody says the things that the vast majority
are crying out to have said.
A staunch supporter of reparations to all black people in compensation
for slavery, he said: The British went into Africa and used
slave labour to build the empire; it wasnt the British only
but they did it as much as anyone.
There were white slaves too, of course, and the class system
still exists here and there is a struggle against it, but the black
slave trade was particularly brutal.
People talk about giving Africa aid, £10 million here
or £100 million there, but the West has run it and exploited
it for 400 years.
For all his interest and knowledge of black politics, he remains
frustrated by the black film-maker tag, which he says
unnecessarily pigeonholes all black artists.
And his work is not all about political subjects; his 1978 documentary
The Skateboard Kings provided much of the footage for last years
hit movie Dogtown and Z Boys, about pioneering Californian skateboarders
Tony Alva and Stacey Peralta, while TV work has included a series
of The Professionals and more recently, The Equaliser, a drama about
the 1919 Amritsar massacre that won him two Indian academy awards.
Ove says: I was always against retrospectives, even though
Ive had them before in Los Angeles and Germany, because as
a freelance film-maker, Im always trying to hustle and get
money for the next film.
But now I can see the importance of it because there is a
new generation that needs to know what happened here not
just black people but everyone. I would never make films just for
black people I make them for all people.
The Horace Ove season starts tonight (Thursday) at 7pm,
at the Barbican with question and answers and screening of Pressure.
The season runs until next Wednesday.