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British Film Appreciation: Pressure (1975)

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Otherness isn't chosen, otherness like occasional greatness or a swimming pool verruca, is thrust upon you.

Tony Watson (Herbert Norville) understands this, the conditions of his existence render him other. Tony is the youngest member of his family, the only first generation black Brit. Otherness lives inside him, grows moss-like on his vital organs, creeps like invisible ivy up his limbs. He is at risk every time he breathes and everywhere he goes.

Tony is a 16 year old in the London of the 1970s, he has just finished school and lives with his parents and older brother who are immigrants from Trinidad. Pressure (1975) is spread out over the course of a few days but Tony's experiences are so stacked, he shuffles unthinkingly from one incident to the next, it's as if everything is happening on one verrrrrrrry long day. Every encounter highlights something specific about Tony's struggle to assimilate, find acceptance, rid himself of ivy and moss. He walks through different peer groups in his West London suburb (delinquents, activists, churchgoers), he is confronted by school friends, the police, and racist neighbours.

Tony's experiences are registered through Horace Ové's flat direction, in a bright and drab world. The brightness is of demeanours, expressions and clothes (the leather baker boy caps are my favourite), the atmosphere is drab, the air seems stagnant. Pressure's London is a London of many corners and tight spaces, a city that shrinks from you right when you need it to expand. It grows darker, drabber, until rain crashes down in the final scene, forcing a conclusion.

Pressure is the first feature film directed by a black Brit. It bears the hallmarks of an early creative work, its running time is demanding, it is laboured in its messages, clumsy speechifying punctuates much of its action. None of this however dents my affection for it, I enjoy Pressure's awkward honesty. Now understood as an audacious political work and record of its time, the film was shelved for three years by its producers. The 70s were a more volatile time for race relations in Britain and the BFI were nervous about the film's frank discussion and depictions of racism. Pressure merits re-watching because it grapples with an eternal question.

How to belong?

How to belong?

How to belong?

The most perfect thing Pressure does for me is its opening scene, the family at the breakfast table. Tony sits and eats his Full English, made for him by his mother. Tony's family eat Trinidadian Avocados with hot pepper sauce, his brother Colin (Oscar James) teases him, admonishes him "Listen up, English boy..." This forces Tony to defend his Englishness all the while aware that his blackness distances him from it. "He's not like us", their mother interjects. But then, who is he like? Who is he?

It is hard to describe the relief this scene brought me upon first viewing, it made too much sense, it made my bones scream calmly. This first scene explains otherness, it showed me how it works, that it is an enduring feeling of separation, an ongoing negotiation in and out of things you never chose.

Multiculturalism is increasingly spoken of negatively in Europe, as though it is a failed experiment or doomed project. Truth is, I could no more cease being multicultural than I could eat my foot for dinner tonight. When a politician stands on a podium and gives an anti-multiculturalism speech they are asking me if I'd prefer ketchup or mustard with my size 8s.

Pressure offers few answers for the rapid-fire questions it asks about identity. Tony flits in and out of understanding, stumbles into awareness, but others are destined to stand alone.

I watch Pressure often. It provides a gratuitous comfort, it makes me feel fleetingly understood. Even though it is busy with plot and urgent in tone it soothes me. Sometimes I watch it without watching it. It is on in the background. I am lonely in the foreground.

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