Pressure / Baldwin's Nigger Review

Of the two films contained on this disc, Baldwin’s Nigger came first. A 1969 documentary, this 45-minute piece captures novelist James Baldwin and comedian-turned-activist Dick Gregory addressing a political meeting in London. Cinema vérité in the purest and most simple of terms, it also happens to be a superb example of the approach. Its simplicity is its key, the film’s events being captured on a single 16mm camera with black and white film stock and a directness which speaks volumes. Director Horace Ové is clearly in awe of Baldwin and as such lets him do the talking; there is no authorial voice here beyond Baldwin’s and as such we are left with only one option – to listen.

And of course, this is what we do. Baldwin is a remarkable orator and a great visualist, discussing the black experience with an intelligence, sharp wit and, understandably, a great anger. As he offers his thoughts on slavery, on the then current Vietnam War, on the similarities between the struggle in the UK and the struggle in the States, we are sucked into every word. Yet Ové also gives us plenty to see. Certainly, he is often loathe to move away from his principle speaker and the sweat accumulating on his brow as he grows ever more forceful, though when he does offer a cutaway to an audience member or pans his camera across the collected faces such moments feel necessary. They offer a sense of place, not only of the room itself and the meeting therein, but also the historical context. The tiny moments, such as one member of the audience obscuring himself with a clipboard for fear of being seen or the snatched headline referring to the situation in Vietnam, prove integral and at once proclaim the film’s significance in historical, political and cinematic terms.

Pressure, made several years later, operates on similar levels of importance, though the fact that it’s a work of fiction renders such matters more complex. No longer a simple record, other factors must be considered, each of which exerts its own control. We’re now dealing with actors, a bigger crew and more control on Ové’s part – how to shape the drama, how to capture it – plus the highly important fact that this would become the UK’s first black feature film. Indeed, this latter element is unavoidably integral to any consideration of Pressure as Ové must have been aware of it. An educated man, both in the general sense of the word and cinematically speaking, it seems impossible that events could have been otherwise. After all, he had previously made the feature length documentary Reggae simply because the musical form needed to be taken more seriously.

Being a first, however, comes with certain expectations. As the initial reaction to Nighthawks, the UK’s first mainstream movie to take on homosexuality, proved a couple of years later, audiences will expect various agendas to be fulfilled when a subject is broached for the first time. Moreover, one of these expectations is to bring various issues to the attentions of a wider viewership and as such must also take upon itself to educate, inform and satisfy a large audience. In other words, Pressure cannot merely be seen as a drama.

Indeed, most of these considerations have been taken into account and the majority addressed in some way or other. The film is viewed through the eyes of Anthony, a black youth born in England whereas his parents and brother, with whom he lives, emigrated from Trinidad. As such we get three differing perspectives: Anthony is well-educated, intelligent, has white friends and is generally progressive in his outlook; his parents represent an older viewpoint whereby hard work and keeping your head down will provide its own rewards; and the brother, Colin, is “strictly Black Power”, militant and spends his time fundraising and organising meetings.

Of course, this allows Ové to cover a lot of ground, though even this doesn’t always satisfy him. The need to address as many issues as possible appears at times to outweigh narrative concerns; on the fringes of the film we find the police arresting a youth for possessing a deadly weapon in the form of an Afro comb, or a landlady with racist attitudes, solely to allow for a few points to be made. And there is a danger that Ové is simply scoring points. In this respect it is instructive to compare Pressure with Saul Dibb’s Bullet Boy or the films of Ken Loach. Shorn of any overt social or cinematic significance, these later works are able to breathe more easily and become far more palatable – you never feel like you’re being lectured or bullied into taking a position which can be the case here.

Yet at two hours in length Pressure isn’t quite as stifling as this may suggest. Such a running time allows its scenes to unwind at their own pace and thereby prevent the film from becoming too calculated. Complexities are allowed to come into the equation and more personal elements are allowed to mix with the politics. Moreover, this creates a certain freewheeling quality which not only serves to smooth out the schematics, but also enhances the docudrama qualities. As shot in an off-the-cuff manner (Ové reveals in the accompanying interview that he never attempted to gain filming permission) we are able to see the London of the mid-seventies, or rather Ladbroke Grove, perfectly captured. In combination with a superbly evocative dub soundtrack, the sense of place is succinctly, almost invisibly achieved; the fact that the occasional extra, as it were, can be found peering into the lens only enhances the realism.

More important, however, is the mixture of non-actors amongst the professionals on the cast list. And with the lead role being occupied by one of the former, Herbert Norville in an often note perfect performance, it is clear which faction holds sway. They are able to infuse Pressure with their own distinct rhythms so that, at times, scenes almost resemble Baldwin’s Nigger and its vérité in their approach and dramatic success. The failed job interview, for example, which comes early on in the narrative contains all the awkward details and is all the more powerful for it – the silences, the fear, even the porno mag which the office manager has been leafing through when no-one’s around. In other words it is the reality which is coming through and this proves vital to Ové. In allowing us to connect on this level with these situations he therefore allows the various issues to become more real, if you will. We may, at times, be able to plot Anthony’s disillusionment and gradual militancy with relative ease, yet such a trajectory is seen to make sense. And in this respect Pressure shows itself to be a great success.

The Disc

Both Baldwin’s Nigger and Pressure were filmed using 16mm cameras and relatively cheap film stock. As such their respective presentations aren’t immediately impressive, but then this is truly as good as it gets. We get the films in their original Academy ratios, mostly free from damage (there’s certainly nothing here which would distract an audience) and blessed with technically sound transfers. The softness of their images and presence of grain are both wholly intentional and unavoidable.

As for the soundtracks, here we find both in their original mono (spread across the front two channels). In both cases, the films sound decidedly fine. Pressure’s musical accompaniment is especially strong, whilst the clarity of Baldwin’s Nigger is really quite impressive for such a small scale venture. And of course, such a quality is integral to the film, which only makes it all the more delightful. Otherwise, any flaws are wholly the result of the films’ respective productions – if a voice does suddenly disappear in the mix somewhat then this is simply because the boom mic has been unable to pick them up. As such, the presence of optional English Hard of Hearing subtitles is to be welcomed, though you’ll need them far less often than you’d think.

As well as the two films – which many would argue offer more than enough value – the BFI have also included a handful of worthy extras. The expansive 12-page booklet contains new liner notes by Derek Malcolm plus archive articles and interviews with the director; the photo gallery allows us to view some of Ové’s superb photography from the seventies (taken at various rallies and the like); and the interview gives us the opportunity to spend just over a half an hour in his company. Of course, this is therefore one of the more desirable pieces on the disc and indeed rarely disappoints. Though focussing primarily on Pressure, the interview’s duration does allow for a great deal of ground to be covered. We learn of his upbringing, his work as an extra in the infamous 1964 production of Cleopatra, his politics, his cinematic methods (primarily neo-realism and guerrilla filmmaking) and the influence he believes his films have had. All in all, it provides a rich and fascinating discussion. (As with the two films, this interview also comes with optional English Hard of Hearing subtitles.)

Film
8 out of 10
Video
8 out of 10
Audio
8 out of 10
Extras
8 out of 10
Overall

8

out of 10

Last updated: 19/04/2018 07:32:27

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