Horace Ové, Trinidad-born trailblazer of Black British cinema, leaves behind a rich legacy of films and photographs

Filmmaker Horace Ové at the Caribbean Tales Festival in Toronto, June 2007. Photo by Georgia Popplewell on Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

On Saturday, September 16, Trinidad-born, UK-based Horace Ové, one of the most important filmmakers to come out of the turbulent post-World War II era, died in London at the age of 86. Perhaps best known for the seminal 1976 film “Pressure,” the first Black feature film to come out of Britain, which grittily portrayed the experiences of the Windrush generation, Ové was long hailed as a pioneer of Black British cinema.

His son, visual artist Zak Ové, announced his father's passing on social media:

Born on December 3, 1936, to his shop owner parents Lawrence and Lorna, Ové was raised in the Port of Spain neighbourhood of Belmont. Trinidadian writer and cultural worker Attillah Springer called Ové “a quintessential Belmont man [whose] camera was his bois [stick used in the traditional martial art of stickfighting].” Belmont's gingerbread-style houses and winding lanes created a nurturing foundation upon which the community's storytellers, photographers, musicians, and Carnival designers could emerge more fully into themselves. For Ové, that creative exploration began with the movies. As a child, going to the cinema was one of his favourite pastimes. Springer continued:

He took the energy of those early days wandering those narrow streets and secret lanes and put them into films that saw us, that made us the stars. I give thanks for all the chances I got to see him at work and at play, to be in the audience to watch new generations discover his work.

As a young adult, Ové travelled to Britain to study photography and painting. He soon found work in the film industry thanks to his cousin, actor Stephan Kalipha, and his love affair with film grew deeper. Working on the 1963 film Cleopatra took Ové to Italy, where he stayed for a few years, painting and taking photographs. While there, he became inspired by the work of Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini and was heavily influenced by the style of Italian neorealism. Upon his return to England, he enrolled at the London School of Film Technique (now the London International Film School), setting his future in motion.

Ové's first film, in 1966, was “The Art of the Needle”, a short for the Acupuncture Association. This was followed in 1969 by “Baldwin's Nigger”, in which Ové chronicled the Black American writer's discussion of the civil rights struggle with comedian and activist Dick Gregory at the West Indian Students’ Centre in London, and 1970's “Reggae,” which covered the first major reggae concert held in Wembley Stadium and enjoyed a successful run in both theatres and on BBC television. From this success, Ové made other documentaries for the BBC, including “King Carnival” (1973), which the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival defined as “a love letter to T&T” calling it “one of the best [films] ever made about the history of Trinidad and Tobago Carnival”; and “Skateboard Kings” (1978), which examined how the demands of this emerging sport intertwined with ideas of manhood and self-identity in Los Angeles, California.

In 1974, he completed “Pressure,” from a screenplay co-written with renowned Trinidadian writer Sam Selvon. The film told the story of a Black family in London through different perspectives — the Windrush-era parents, their Caribbean-born first child who becomes part of the Black Power movement, and their younger, British-born son who grapples with finding his identity amid these two cultural realities. The film's depiction of police brutality caused it to be banned for two years before it was finally released in 1976 to critical acclaim.

In 2004, the exhibition “Pressure: Photographs by Horace Ové,” promoted as “the first in-depth look at his photographic back catalogue,” toured Britain. The exihibition included Ové's vivid and organic depictions of the social and political climate of 1960s Britain, but also documented the diverse cultural expressions of Trinidad and Tobago Carnival.

He also brough a unique creative vision to his television work, including a four-part series based on Phyllis Stand Allfrey's novel “The Orchid House” (1991); “Who Shall We Tell?”, about the aftermath of India's Bhopal gas disaster, which was nominated for the John Grierson Award in 1986; and “The Equalizer,” about the 1919 Amritsar Massacre, won two British Indian Academy Awards in 1996.  “Dream to Change the World” (2003), which documented the life and work of the Trinidad-born activist John La Rose, founder of New Beacon Books. Among the last productions directed by Ové was 2009's “The Ghost of Hing King Estate”, filmed in Trinidad with an all-Trinidadian cast and crew.

Upon Ové's death, the British Film Institute (BFI) posted the following tribute:

Other social media users remembered Ové as “one of the greats,” “iconic,” a pioneer, and “the godfather of black British cinema.”.

Some expressed the view, however, that Ové's genius had not been adequately recognised:

Others remarked on the significance of the loss to the global film industry:

Ové was the recipient of several awards and recognition, including a BFI award for Best Director for Independent Film and Television for his “contribution to British culture” (1986), and a Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival Film Pioneer Award (2012). In 2013, the Trinidad and Tobago government recognised him as a national icon who “personified and epitomised the strong values, fundamental beliefs, and cultural aspirations of our society.”

In 2017, during the UK's 12th Screen Nation Film and Television Awards, Ové was honoured with the Edric Connor Trailblazer award. He also won the British Independent Film Awards (BIFA) Special Jury Prize in 2018. “In a year where Windrush has been plastered across newspaper headlines,” the citation stated, “it seems fitting that the jury have chosen to honour one of the generation’s proudest voices.” Ové was knighted in 2022 for his work in the media industry.

Ové will forever be remembered for his strong and courageous vision, rooted in telling stories that matter—and that most other filmmakers were not telling at the time. His work forged bridges of understanding across cultures, breaking down barriers and attempting to unite people across differences.

In the words of Tillahwillah:

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