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Friday 1st July, 2005

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Horace’s life in black power

The world has changed but there is still a role for Black Power, film-maker Horace Ove tells Kim Janssen

US Black Power leader Stokeley Carmichael speaks at the Chalk Farm Roundhouse in 1967

Horace Ove

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.
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 Town’s first boutique in the early 1970s.
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 moved in.
“I had some hippy friends who decorated the shop and they painted the outside with a giant dick!”
No stranger to controversy, Ove’s first film, Pressure, was banned for two years by its own backers, the British Film Institute (BFI).
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 film’s 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 Indra’s 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 didn’t know what was really going on and I think the film frightened them for that reason.”
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, Baldwin’s 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: “There’s 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 coming from.
“I’ve always tried to stand outside of the subject matter, although I’ve 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 wasn’t 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 year’s 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 I’ve had them before in Los Angeles and Germany, because as a freelance film-maker, I’m 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.
All content © New Journal Enterprises, 2005