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BFI Notes: Pressure


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BFI Notes: Pressure

  1. 1. Pressure and Burnning an Illusion The following comments by Joel might help you when you are watching the films. You can also follow the links that take you to sources of more information. With racial tensions, after years of simmering, finally erupting across Britain's inner cities in places like Liverpool's Toxteth, Bristol's St. Paul's, Birmingham's Handsworth and at the Notting Hill Carnival in London, Margaret Thatcher's axiom 'there's no such thing as society' seemed to ring particularly true for a whole generation of black British youth. The ensuing social unrest was juxtaposed with, and to some extent exacerbated by, tensions between first and second generation immigrants. The originally optimistic, often middle-class immigrant sensibilities of the Windrush generation was transformed into a predominantly pessimistic, working- and under-class, notion of black Britishness (Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain: Report) of the first fully Anglo-Caribbean generation to have come of age in Britain. Each film also set the tone for a series of productions that would re-evaluate what it meant to be black in Britain, from a stridently militant point of view. Previously, productions Sapphire(Basil Dearden, 1959, UK) and Flame in the Streets(Ray Barker, 1961, UK) took a liberal stance, viewing the situation of Britain's demographic change, from the mainstream perspective and still clinging to paternalist attitudes of race and class that seemed somewhat beholden to a bygone era and sensibility. Both Pressure and Burning an Illusion were released in the wake of black exploitation cinema's peak in the mid 1970s and well after the political impact of the genre's early films had been softened by formulaic storylines, in an attempt to appeal, as the studios saw it, to a broader mainstream audience. With the revolutionary zeal and counter cultural stance of Sweet, Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (Melvin Van Peebles, 1971, USA), Superfly (Gordon Parks, 1972, USA) and The Spook Who Sat by the Door (Ivan Dixon, 1973, USA), giving way to heroines and heroes who, though 'black and hip', forewent the radical content, ghetto politics and activism of their forerunners in favour of an inherently ghetto aesthetic. Just like the commercialised gangsta rap formula at its worst, with the procession of pimps, pushers and hoodlums, that came to personify them, black exploitation films were a means to their own ends, seeking to carve a niche for themselves within the system, not trying to overthrow or transform it. 1
  2. 2. Pressure and Burnning an Illusion While characters such as Sweetback (in Sweet, Sweetback's Baadasssss Song), Priest (in Superfly) and Dan Freeman (in Spook) became disillusioned, then challenged and ultimately usurped the system, the protagonists in films like Shaft (Gordon Parks, 1971 USA), Foxy Brown (Jack Hill, 1974, USA) and Cleopatra Jones (Jack Starrett, 1973, USA) were, no matter how marginal, part of the system and operated to uphold the status quo. It is against this backdrop that both Pressure and Burning an Illusion need to be considered, in the light of the black independent and studio representations of the African American experience, which manifest themselves in the form of black exploitation cinema, and the shift from the Civil Rights Movement to Black Power which helped to fuel the subsequent development of a black British identity and screen presence. The protagonists in both movies undergo a political awakening, reminiscent of Sweetback's and Priest's, but are grounded in a stridently social realist structure, beholden to British cinema, that distances itself from the action-packed Hollywood formula of even the most radical black exploitation movie. For more information about the pioneers of black filmmaking in Britain go to screenonline. As with any movie, the reading of these films changes as its context shifts with time. In the 30 years since Pressure was produced and released into a cultural milieu of rising unemployment, social unrest and racial instability much has changed. On the one hand, the emphatic and continued mainstream success of black popular culture in Britain, particularly in sports, arts and entertainment, has sparked a more highbrow contemporary interest, as witnessed by recent exhibitions, Black British Style at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Africa Remix at the Haywood Gallery and the forthcoming West Indian Front Room: Three generations of change in the black British home at the Geffrye Museum. On the other hand, despite the positive presence of black MPs and cabinet ministers, many of the old millstones still weigh heavily around the neck of black Britain. Issues such as police victimisation, limited job prospects and continued failure within and by the education system, highlighted in Pressure and Burning an Illusion, have been constantly recurring themes, virtually definitive of black British youth culture today. In both films, overtly political issues such as police harassment, blatant racism, poor housing and discrimination in the workforce are juxtaposed with the more subtle 2
  3. 3. Pressure and Burnning an Illusion aspects of popular culture such as food, language, music and fashion. These have all ultimately made major contributions in the formation of a black popular cultural renaissance, now beginning to receive full critical attention for its impact on the mainstream. Like all cultural artefacts, both Pressure and Burning an Illusion speak volumes about the times in which they were produced. To contemporary audiences, they may seem dated particularly as they were made to a tight budget, but they nevertheless hold a certain resonance for anyone who grew up in the 1970s. Much has changed in the three decades after the first black British feature film went into production, and while we can look back with a certain degree of satisfaction it would be wise to remember that much has also stayed the same. Themes in Pressure and Burning an Illusion Before going further, if you haven't done so already, you should watch the films. In his analysis of them, Joel concentrates on three themes, illuminating how the films convey their meaning through their use of: • Food • Physical environment • Hair and fashion These themes relate specifically to the mise en scène of the films, exploring how they reflect the changing cultural values, and the way the young people in the film react to their experience of racism in Britain at the time they were growing up, as Joel has outlined in the notes you have just read. These themes are by no means the only ones that could be examined, but they do provide an interesting way of exploring and analysing the films and the issues that they raise. He also examines how language reflects character development in the films. Food Early on in both films, food acts as an indicator of cultural disjuncture. In Pressure it is at breakfast, between Tony and his elder brother Colin. In Burning an Illusion it is at Pat and Del's first date, in the 'best black restaurant in town'. Many mainstream 3
  4. 4. Pressure and Burnning an Illusion and arthouse films have used food as a cultural signifier. Juzo Itami's classic Tampopo (1985, Japan) explores some of the issues surrounding gender and cultural identity in Japan through the politics and etiquette of food. Itami also structures his movie, an eclectic composition of stories, in a way that is as different from traditional mainstream film structures, as a Japanese Bento Box is from a hamburger. In Steven Spielberg's Hollywood blockbuster Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984, USA) there is a more conventional use of food as a plot device. At a banquet scene in which Jones and his cohorts are invited to dine with the young maharaja, his advisers and a British military representative to India, the meal, a highly unlikely assemblage, consists of a lavish and extremely debauched spread that includes giant beetles for starters, snake surprise, eyeball soup and chilled monkey brains for dessert. As expected, Jones remains unfazed by the fare, the British representative shows stoic disdain, while Jones' companions (a woman and a child) squirm and shriek in front of every dish laid before them, aghast as their hosts' rapaciously poke and prod food with their fingers, dig things out with their nails and burp and slurp their way through a frenzied display of barbarism. The overwhelming decadence of their performance is in complete contrast to that of their Western guests and serves as a metaphor and forewarning for their underlying savagery, which will unfold later on in the movie. By contrast, in the very next scene we see Jones partially seduce his love interest with a 'civilised' bowl of fruit, which displays none of the exotic produce one would expect to find from a platter on the Indian subcontinent. Neither, Pressure nor Burning an Illusion employs food to represent such a clear, over-the-top cultural binary; nevertheless food and culinary etiquette operate, in both films, as signifiers of cultural disenfranchisement. Pressure In the breakfast scene, at the start of Pressure, Colin confronts Tony over his choice of bacon and eggs as a meal because it exemplifies his Englishness which Colin sees as a dilution of his 'blackness'. Colin instead chooses to eat the zaboca (avocado), which we have just seen him take from his father's shop, lamenting how they grow on trees all over Trinidad. Colin further asserts that he eats 'black food', unlike the typically English fish and chips that Tony so loves. Colin uses this situation to question Tony's identity (pointing to a Gary Glitter poster on the wall) and self- 4
  5. 5. Pressure and Burnning an Illusion awareness. When Tony refers to the fruit as an 'avocado', Colin launches a verbal attack, asking Tony what he really knows, again evoking images of Trinidad, where zaboca 'grow wild'. The scene can also be read as a metaphor for the beginning of Tony's journey of self-discovery in the film. As the argument between the two brothers peaks, Tony asks 'What's wrong with bacon and eggs, fish and chips and Gary Glitter?' The question is a precursor to those deeper questions Tony will later be forced to ask of himself as he experiences a growing sense of alienation and self-awareness. The breakfast scene also uses the preparation of food and the rituals of consumption in a symbolic way that compounds the distance between the two brothers. Before we even see Tony we are presented with a close up of the bacon and eggs being prepared for him by his mother, as she screams for him to get ready for his forthcoming interview. This early display of cultural acquiescence in the film confirms an association between Bopsie, the boys' mother and an unquestioning desire to have her youngest son 'fit in' to the British way of life, no matter what the cost. While her stance is not specifically highlighted or questioned until later in the film, here she is seen preparing a meal that no other member of the family seems to enjoy, apart from Tony. By contrast, Colin's ritual preparation of his 'natural' meal is presented as a confirmation of his Caribbean roots, reinforced by the use of his hands when eating, a stark contrast to Tony's 'correct' (in his eyes) and staid use of a knife and fork. Later on in the film, after Tony has returned from the unsuccessful interview, Bopsie interrogates him about his continued lack of success on the job front, reiterating the sacrifice she and his father have made for him and the benefits, as she sees it, that now lay before him. 'You born here, you have an English education, nothing should stop you.' Both are unaware of the forces working against him and here the director again uses Tony's food preference as a means of displaying his immersion into British mainstream culture. Tony rejects his mother's offer of the rice and peas she has cooked for him in favour of a trip to the chippie and, despite her initial resistance, she finally concedes, asking if he has enough money for chips as he walks out the door. Furthermore, in the next scene Tony appears, alone and dejected, walking along the canal and taking seemingly little solace, if any, in his bag of chips. 5
  6. 6. Pressure and Burnning an Illusion Chips are used ironically throughout the movie to emphasise Tony's disenfranchisement, both from the mainstream of society and his Caribbean roots. After meeting an old school friend, Sheila, at a nightclub Tony walks her home and, along the way she suggests they stop for chicken and chips. Due to his financial situation Tony says that he will just have chips. Sheila waves this aside insisting that the meal will be on her as she is working. While Sheila in buying the food, Tony does not even enter the café, a KFC, instead he cuts a forlorn figure, as he stares at her through the shop window, as if doubting his self-worth and earning ability. The next day Tony is labelled 'a fish and chips man' when upon meeting a group of his 'West Indian' friends under the shadow of the Westway flyover near Portobello Road, he is asked if he would like to join them as they are about to go and buy some patties (a Jamaican meat pasty). He accepts the invitation though stating that he doesn't want any 'pâté', much to his friends' amusement. Even though, he is not ridiculed or made to feel alienated for this, it is clear that Tony was born here (in Britain) culturally as well as physically, while many of his friends still hold a greater cultural attachment to the Caribbean. As they walk through the market, various members of the group disappear, only to return with stolen fruit, much to Tony's surprise. Here again food is used as a social signifier. This is not a malicious criminal act, though there does seem to be an element of adolescent horseplay involved, but is a result of necessity - stealing to eat. However, it is compounded and has more serious consequences later in the film. Surprisingly, we do not see the shop where the West Indian food (patties) is purchased, as Tony stops to talk to his brother, whom he meets selling an activist newspaper, while the rest of the group move on. When they return, patties in hand, Tony, who again has been berated by Colin for 'not thinking black' is presented, not with a patty but a bag of chips. The signification of the chips here is again important, as Tony is accepted as an integral part of the social group yet, to some extent, culturally distanced from it. The acquisition of food, by this group of young men and the social and political implications associated with it, take on even greater significance when Tony, returning from yet another unsuccessful interview, meets his friends, on the Harrow Road, as they are on their way to the supermarket. On arrival, the ever naïve Tony is posted outside to keep watch without realising what is taking place. As the rest of the 6
  7. 7. Pressure and Burnning an Illusion group execute their plan to procure food, Tony leaves his assigned post, only to send a pile of tins crashing to the ground, alerting the shop staff to the activities of his cohorts. As the boys panic and take flight, dragging Tony behind them, one of them, Jacko, trips and is apprehended by the police. After a desperate dash, the rest of the friends escape and find refuge in a ramshackle house upon which Tony breaks down and starts to cry about his unwitting contribution to an illegal act and, as he perceives it, his newly acquired 'criminal status'. When confronted about his actions at the store, his defence, that he didn't know what was happening, is greeted with an incredulous, 'How could you be so stupid?'. The notion that any of his friends need to steal in order to eat comes as a complete shock to Tony, despite the realities of their lives being played out under his very nose. The plate of food waiting for him whenever he gets home represents the relatively cosseted world that his peers can only dream of. This disjuncture is compounded in the next scene when Tony finally returns home, as his first port of call is the kitchen and the pot of food left for him on the cooker by his mother. As he sits down with his plate of rice and peas he once more enters into a debate with his brother, as Colin points, ironically, to the fact that Tony is finally eating 'black food' and using pepper sauce to boot. Yet, though heated, this is not the head-on clash of opinions that we have witnessed previously between the two, and for the first time in the movie, we start to see Tony engage and even take onboard some of the issues being raised. At last Colin's rhetoric about black empowerment finds a tangible reference point with Tony when he hears that Colin has already been trying to find legal representation for Jacko - funded by raising money from the sales of the newspaper and locally organised dances. As with the breakfast scene earlier, the etiquette of food consumption in the film is again brought into play as we now see Tony eating with a spoon, not a knife and fork. In the Caribbean spoons are often used with meals, largely due to the high consumption of sauces, casseroles, marinades and soups. However, in this scene, although no mention is made of it, the spoon represents more than a mere utilitarian choice but a cultural, as well as sibling, realignment. The spoon and pepper sauce are later reinforced as icons when they reappear at a political meeting which Tony not only attends, but where he also offers a considered political point of view, finally receiving the acknowledgement of his elders. Still, the rift between Tony and Colin is 7
  8. 8. Pressure and Burnning an Illusion not fully healed and as Tony begins to assert himself, the process unfolds gradually. He questions Colin's position on interracial relationships and responds to his brother's question about another interview, asking whether there is any difference 'starving for poverty or Black Power?' Physical environment By focusing on physical environment, such as architecture and décor, in each film, you can consider how they have been used to represent conflicts and convey messages, as well as convey a sense of time and place. It may also be useful to compare them to other films set in London, such as Notting Hill. In the following notes Joel examines how the architecture and urban development in different parts of London give us insights into how communities have changed over the past 30 years. Films, like many cultural artefacts, comment upon the cultures that produce them in a variety of ways. However, how spectators view and read them is not fixed and will undergo a continued transformation over time. Additionally, cultural variances among audiences will always alter the intended meaning of a film and its director. Furthermore, films may also be read as historical documents recording issues peripheral at the time of filming, which may take on a great significance when viewed subsequently. Both Pressure and Burning an Illusion, through the personal development of their central protagonists, offer an enlightening commentary on the development of London, culturally and physically, over the past 30 years. They are both set in parts of west London frequently featured in films, areas which have undergone a dramatic cultural and architectural transformation during the post-war era. A film shot more than a decade earlier, Roy Barker's Flame in the Streets (1961, UK), takes a very liberal stance for the time, telling the tale of an interracial couple trying to 8
  9. 9. Pressure and Burnning an Illusion fight off the bigotry they face on all sides, in order to maintain their relationship. Like Pressure and Burning an Illusion, it has a number of scenes shot in Notting Hill and surrounding areas (Ladbroke Grove and Westbourne Park). The film was released only three years after the infamous Notting Hill race riots, a theme which is drawn upon in the narrative. Settled by many first generation Caribbean immigrants during the post-war period, the area around Notting Hill can be used as a yardstick to measure the 'integration' and development of a black British community. In films such as Flame in the Streets and Pressure, we are presented with a very different view of the area than later featured in Notting Hill (Roger Michell, 1999, UK). This is largely filmed on Portobello Road, the location of the very same market that Tony and his friends patrolled and stole food from in Pressure. However in Michell's film, starring Hugh Grant as a local bookshop owner and Julia Roberts as a Hollywood star, we are introduced to a Notting Hill which is now one of the trendiest and sought after residential areas in the capital. It is a far cry from the rundown and derelict housing available to most of the early immigrants who were forced to pay exorbitant rents for overcrowded, substandard properties (often just a single room for an entire family), owned by unscrupulous landlords, such as the infamous property racketeer Peter Rachman. Because of racism in other, more affordable parts of the city, where boarding house windows often featured 'No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish', most immigrants had little choice over where they lived. The conditions that many Caribbean immigrants found themselves in the late 1950s is touched upon in other films, such as Basil Dearden's thriller Sapphire (1959, UK) but is best exemplified in a scene from Flame in the Streets when the character Kathie Palmer (Sylvia Syms), a white school teacher, goes looking for her Jamaican boyfriend, Peter Lincoln (Johnny Sekka), at his lodgings. Every room in the ramshackle house is occupied by at least one person, in loud overbearing conditions, which spill out on to the stairwells and landings, fostering tensions that eventually erupted into racial conflict in the surrounding streets. More than two decades after the production of Flame in the Streets and the Notting Hill race riots, Pressure and later Burning an Illusion show that much, but not all, of the urban squalor of the immediate post-Windrush era had been bulldozed. In its 9
  10. 10. Pressure and Burnning an Illusion place an epidemic of high rise blocks of flats swept across the area along with the imposing and defining structure of the (A40) Westway flyover. Indeed the architecture and topography of the surrounding areas feature strongly in both films and can be read as integral components of their narratives. For instance, in Pressure, Tony's parents, despite his father's lamentations about the quality of life he once had as an accountant in Trinidad, and Colin's protestations about selling out, are proprietors of their own shop and have a comfortable middle-class life style, in contrast to some of Tony's friends' who seem to live an almost feral existence in abject squalor. Nevertheless, we see a marked shift between the world of Flame in the Streets and Pressure, indicating the social changes that had taken place in London between the 1950s and 1970s. Pressure In Pressure, despite the evident racism, the ownership of the shop by Tony's parents represents that assimilation and progress are possible, if at a 'cost'. However, more importantly, it also represents the difference in attitude between the Windrush and post-Windrush generations, as the hope and endeavour of the Caribbean immigrants is contrasted with the increasing sense of alienation and disenfranchisement of black British youth. Tony is shown to be caught between theses two worlds, initially clinging to the aspirational dreams of his parents, particularly his mother, but slowly becoming aware that the cosseted world of his immediate domestic environment does not hold true for the majority of his peers and, ultimately, him. The distance between his parent's and his friends' worlds is poignantly highlighted when, after escaping from the failed supermarket raid and taking refuge in a house, Tony has to be reassured by his friends that he is 'still in the Grove' (Ladbroke Grove), their local area and only a stone's throw away from the safety of his own home. However, he is a million miles away from any understanding of his situation. The house in which the boys take harbour is in itself interesting. It represents the kind of property that later, through institutions like the Notting Hill Housing Trust, marked the transition between the near slums rented by Rachman and the luxury housing that now dominates the area. Indeed the social housing policy implemented by the Trust, which bought and renovated property, allowed many working-class and 10
  11. 11. Pressure and Burnning an Illusion immigrant residents to stay in the area, despite the rapid gentrification in recent years. It set and tried to maintain affordable rents, which in turn helped to nurture the community spirit, and set the scene for expressions of cultural vitality, such as the Notting Hill Carnival. The impact of architecture, as emblematic of status and belonging, is further explored in Pressure when Tony arrives for an interview and in the foyer of the office block, the previously dormant security guard, springs to life at the sight of a young black man 'being where he should not be'. Likewise, the police raid of the activist meeting (filmed on location at a community centre on Acklam Road) foreshadows many of the conflicts between the police and young blacks that were to follow, culminating in the uprising during the Notting Hill carnival in 1976, and the long running conflict between the police and Frank Critchlow, owner of the now (in)famous Mangrove Club on All Saints Road. The penultimate scene in Pressure again draws upon an architectural theme to emphasise its point. In this dream sequence, Tony, now radicalised through his own experiences at the hands of the police, approaches a large mansion house somewhere in the British countryside. Before entering the house, he strips naked and then goes up to one of the bedrooms, where a figure is covered by a silken sheet. Taking a knife Tony proceeds to frantically stab the figure before pulling back the sheet, revealing the carcase of a pig. This creates a surreal polar opposition, between the silk sheet and the pig, finally symbolising Tony's disenfranchisement from the mainstream culture he once sought to be a part of. The scene is the only non-urban setting in the film and stylistically it draws upon Ové's interest in avant- garde European film movements , particularly Italian Neo-Realism and French Surrealism, providing a surreal interlude in an otherwise social realist film. The final scene is in careful juxtaposition with the dream sequence, in that it presents Tony, in the real world, legally protesting outside the law courts. However, psychologically he is simmering with anger, ready to resort to violence as a response to violence. Hair and fashion 11
  12. 12. Pressure and Burnning an Illusion Both films use hair and fashion to signify how their protagonists' identities change and develop over the course of the narrative. Compared to architecture and food, hair and fashion in the mise en scène can provide a much more specific reading of temporal placement. Despite the drastic changes that parts of London have undergone in the past three decades, much of the architecture in films such as Pressure and Burning an Illusion differ only marginally from that in Notting Hill. However the frequency with which hairstyles and fashion trends change allow for a more culturally specific reading of temporal placement. The distinctive hairstyles and fashions of the 1960s are clearly definable in Scandal (Michael Caton-Jones, 1989, UK) and even more pronounced in Julien Temple's musical Absolute Beginners (1986, UK), an extremely stylised look at youth culture, fashion and racial tensions at the time of the Notting Hill race riots. Both films were produced in the late 1980s, and there is clearly an element of nostalgia for a bygone era reflected in the set and costume designs. Neither Pressure nor Burning an Illusion are retrospective films. Instead, they are firmly grounded in their present day and actively draw upon contemporary issues and themes for the central focus of their narratives, reflected in their naturalistic use of 'costume'. Additionally, the relatively short span of time between the two films serves to provide a useful barometer of how various stylistic influences and changes impact upon black British culture and allow us to read the slightest nuances in juxtaposition to one another. In the pre-globalist world of the 1970s, and before the homogenous, label-obsessed influences of hip-hop on international youth culture, the very distinctive dress sense of black British youth is in clear evidence throughout both films, yet within varying degrees of its evolution. Trainers and sports wear had not yet become the norm and amidst the insipient punk rock scene that was about to impact on mainstream British youth, a distinctly conservative tone still dominated black street style in Britain. It is noticeable that in both Pressure and Burning an Illusion the variety of hairstyles and fashions are not as diverse as one would find amongst black communities today. Most tellingly, none of the major characters in either of the films have their hair in 12
  13. 13. Pressure and Burnning an Illusion dreadlocks, a style that has particular resonance within Caribbean culture, specifically reggae and Rastafarianism, and has since become an almost universal emblem for protest groups around the globe, not just an expression of black identity. Pressure Tony in leather jacket and cap In Pressure Tony's attire, initially, swings between what seems to be a school uniform and his Sunday best, a clear binary to the combat jacket and Africana that Colin wears throughout the film and the more considered outfits worn by some of his peers. Colin's combat jacket draws heavily on US counter-culture aesthetics from which he derives much of his political rhetoric (radio broadcast about the Vietnam war are heard several times in the film), while the trench coats, checked sports blazers and hats worn by some of Tony's friends hint at the beginnings of the 'casual' movement that would soon evolve around the reggae scene in the mid-1970s. By the early 1980s, this fashion was already on the wane amongst Del and his friends in Burning an Illusion. Indeed it is, symbolically, in Tony's attire that the viewer can first witness his state of flux. Attending his first activist meeting Tony sports a peaked cap and a light sports jacket, much to the interest of his friends. The hat (this is the first time he is seen wearing one) automatically links him, stylistically, to many of the other attendees. In the eclectic gathering, many of the men are wearing hats of one kind or another, such as traditional Scottish tams or knitted woollens, very popular styles amongst the Afro-Caribbean community at the time. Though such headwear may seem dated to modern audiences, they quickly became signifiers, unceremoniously dubbed 'tea cosies' by the mainstream, of black popular culture, much like the baseball cap or 'hoodie' today. 13
  14. 14. Pressure and Burnning an Illusion This style further symbolises Tony's relationship with an increasingly radical sensibility after he and his brother have been arrested and after Tony has left home. At the house, where he is now an active member of a militant group, making placards for a forthcoming demonstration Tony is surrounded by Afro wearing, dashiki clad 'brothers' full of revolutionary zeal and rhetoric. Interestingly Tony, despite his recent traumas, still views the situation with a degree of hope and does not see his treatment at the hands of racist police as indicative of society as a whole, unlike the nihilistic opinions shared around the table. Also for the first time, Tony's opinions begin to hold sway amongst others and fittingly, his image is subtly, yet deliberately, constructed to mark him out as an individual within the group, somewhere between the pan-African dress and the militant all black leather of the various group members. Along with the costumes, hairstyles can play an important role in helping to define character identity and traits. For example, in Spike Lee's School Daze (1988, US), a musical about intra-racial tension on a university campus, one of the song and dance routines, entitled 'Good and Bad Hair' is set inside a hair salon. Similarly in Jack Starrett's black exploitation film Cleopatra Jones (1973, US) one character, Doodlebug Simkins, is so obsessed with his Afro that his last act before dying is to make sure it looks neat. This scene is later parodied in Robert Townsend's Hollywood Shuffle (1987, US), where Townsend's hardboiled detective extracts information from a suspect by withholding his curl activator. From the 1960s onward, the Afro had become a symbol of black political radicalism and militancy, worn by revolutionary activists such as Angela Davis. Originally know as the 'natural' due to the rejection of short groomed or straightened styles that radicals considered as appeasing to the mainstream; nevertheless, like most stylistic conventions, it became quickly absorbed into the very establishment it sought to distance itself from. While the Afro has a mutely played out role in one scene in Pressure, hairstyles are used to make a profound statement about the position many blacks living in Britain found, and to a certain extent still find, themselves in. For example, when Tony returns home from the police station, he arrives to find the house ransacked by the police and his parents distraught for 'bringing down shame on them'. Amid the ensuing argument Tony finally dispels their cosy dream and tears his mother's wig of 14
  15. 15. Pressure and Burnning an Illusion false, straightened hair from her head, a clear sign that he has rejected her middle- class, assimilationist values once and for all. Language Language is an important indicator of cultural value and identity. The visual language of Pat's evolution has a parallel in the development of a specific black British verbal dialect, that draws upon, yet is significantly different from, the various island patois' of the Caribbean and traditional British vernaculars of the time (themselves in a constant state of flux). As Pat becomes immersed in a black British environment in the course of the film it is possible to perceive the importance of language as a signifier of black identity. When she hears in court that Del has been refused parole, her outcry is far from the middle-class tongue we hear from her at the start of the film. A comparison between Pressure and Burning an Illusion highlights this shift in clear and unequivocal terms. In Pressure Colin makes no bones about the fact that he is from Trinidad and speaks in a manner that distinguishes him as such. This is in complete contrast to Tony's 'middle-class' British accent which not only separates him from Colin and his own black friends but also from his white friends, such as Sheila, who speaks with a more pronounced working-class accent. Throughout Pressure the nuances between various aspects of black language and dialect can be identified and located. They signify several strata, compromising the pan-Caribbean first generation immigrants, an incipient black British vernacular and a heavy, American-influenced political rhetoric as spoken with revolutionary zeal by the activist 'Sister Louise'. In Pressure the language spoken by many of the characters, particularly from the immigrant generation, identifies them as coming from different Caribbean Islands, though many of these dialects are less familiar to contemporary viewers. Furthermore, much of the slang used at the time is no longer in vogue and even when recognisable, maybe seen as kitsch by a younger generation. When Colin says to Sister Louise 'you come hard', commending her on her tough attitude, he is using a term that had a very narrow field of usage within the Caribbean, let alone in Britain, holding virtually no resonance for contemporary viewers, black or white. Similarly, when Bopsie berates Tony's father and brother for putting 'Goat mout' (mouth) on de boy' (a phrase used widely in Trinidad) and not wishing him luck for his interview, 15
  16. 16. Pressure and Burnning an Illusion Ové is again employing language to mark a clear distinction between the generations, and between the Caribbean and Britain. Other common slang words like 'fuzz' and 'pig', employed frequently to describe the police, or the term 'birds' to describe women have also slipped from popular usage but command a much broader cultural reference point, that many people can still easily tap into, viewed almost as a kitsch remnants of 1960s counter culture. Less than a decade separated the release of Pressure and Burning an Illusion, yet in that time the development of what some people now describe as a 'London patois' has already been moulded. Gone are the distinct island variations and in their place is a more homogenous British construction (drawing predominantly from Jamaica, which constituted the largest Caribbean population in Britain). It is from this linguistic standpoint that Del and to a lesser extent Pat, like so many of their generation, initially start to create the foundations of their identities - what it meant to be black and British in the melting pot of 1980s Britain. Ironically, over 20 years later, 'black English', has now been adopted, like so many aspects of black popular culture, by many in the mainstream in their never-ending pursuit of cool. 16