Sir Horace Ové, who has died aged 83, was a trailblazing director and photographer of Trinidadian origin who migrated to the UK in the 1960s and made history as the first black British filmmaker to sign off on a feature-length film.
Co-written with the novelist Samuel Selvon, Pressure (1976) was a study of a young West Indian school leaver, Tony (Herbert Norville), caught between conservatively minded parents, the activism of an older brother, friends straying into street crime and the often-hostile indifference of wider British society.
Given pulse by a light reggae theme song (co-written by Ové himself) and shot on the hoof around Ladbroke Grove, the film described a bustling multicultural community while remaining alert to the bubbling tensions in its midst. Invited to interview for an accountancy firm, Tony is asked questions no Caucasian contemporary would face: “How long have you been in this country?” “Do you play cricket?”
Getting the film made with limited resources was one challenge; getting it seen was another. Pressure’s release was delayed for two years, after its backers at the BFI objected to the depiction of police brutality. Ové insisted everything on screen was based on firsthand knowledge.
“I didn’t make the film sitting in my living room,” he told an interviewer in 2008. “I went out with Sam [Selvon] and we researched it… As black Londoners we were aware of what was happening but when the film came out people didn’t want to admit it was true. In fact, they wanted to ban the bloody film, but the critics saw it and insisted it be released and today DVDs of the film are still selling!”
Thereafter, Ové segued into the marginally more accommodating environment of television, directing episodes of the groundbreaking BBC soap Empire Road (1978-79), the Thames TV kids’ show The Latchkey Children (1980), starring his daughter Indra alongside future playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah, two Channel 4 documentaries about India (Dabbawallahs and Who Shall We Tell?, both 1985) and the acclaimed miniseries The Orchid House (1991), set in post-First World War Dominica.
Only one further feature reached British cinema screens: the genial culture-clash comedy Playing Away (1987), made for Film on Four, which dispatched the Caribbean Brixton Conquistadors cricket team – captained by Norman Beaton’s bristling Willie-Boy – to play a match in a sleepy Suffolk village with modest comic results. For Ové, it was the migrant experience in a nutshell: “They’re trapped and have to get on somehow in this dilemma of a multicultural Britain.”
“I’m not interested in just becoming a jobbing filmmaker,” Ové maintained. “I believe that film is an art and I’m interested in experimenting and taking it further, but I know that’s a problem because we live in a society where they don’t associate that sort of creativity with black people… White filmmakers are allowed to do this. [Yet] black filmmakers are not allowed to do these projects and are rejected when they go that way, and this is something we have to watch and try to change.”
He was born Horace Shango Ové on December 3 1939 in the Port of Spain suburb of Belmont, where his parents, Lorna and Lawrence, owned and ran shops and cafés. He moved to the UK in 1960 to study interior design, supporting himself by working as a stevedore and at the National Temperance Hospital (“Sending me down to the mortuary was punishment for flirting with all the European girls”).
Upon graduation, he headed for Rome, where he found extra work on the set of Cleopatra (1963). He returned to Britain in 1965, and enrolled at the London Film School, where his classmates included the director Michael Mann. Around this time, he met and married Mary Irvine, an Irish immigrant who ran the Camden boutique Doudou’s.
His early shorts included the electric Baldwin’s N----r (1968), a record of a fractious Q&A with James Baldwin at the West Indian Students’ Centre. Yet efforts to broach key British institutions were met with some bafflement: “When I went for my first appointment at the BBC, the commissioning editor had a shock because he wasn’t expecting a West Indian and he didn’t know what to do or say. I always remember telling him not to worry, next summer he would have a tan, and we got along.”
His photography included portraits of such leading activists as Stokely Carmichael and Darcus Howe: “I’ve always been an active photographer – if there’s anything going on socially or politically, I want to know about it.” Ové made history again in 1984, when the Photographers’ Gallery afforded him their first retrospective dedicated to a solo black photographer.
He was appointed CBE in 2007, named a Trinidad and Tobago National Icon in 2013 and knighted in 2022. A restoration of Pressure plays at this year’s London Film Festival and serves as the flagship film of the BFI’s upcoming Ové retrospective.
Interviewed by the Black Film Bulletin in 1996, Ové said: “I think, given the opportunity, black filmmakers could inject something into British cinema. Let me make a comparison: it’s like what has happened when they allowed black footballers to be part of British football teams. When black sportsmen got into sport here, what happened to sport? When black cricketers got into cricket here, what happened? We have enriched it, brought talent, and if that is an example, then the same thing should happen with cinema.”
He married twice, to Mary Irvine and the producer Annabelle Alcazar; both ended in separation. He is survived by four children from his first marriage.
Sir Horace Ové, born December 3 1939, died September 16 2023