Horace Ové has always been controversial.
Widely considered a pioneer of black British history, Ové has spent his life sharing his unique perspective on the black experience in Britain.
The Belmont-born filmmaker, photographer, painter and writer has built a prolific career in film and holds the Guinness World Record for being the first black British filmmaker to direct a feature film, Pressure (1976). Ové documented racism and the Black Power movement in Britain with films such as Baldwin’s Nigger (1968) and Dream to Change the World (2003). His documentary works Reggae (1971) and Skateboard Kings (1978) are studies for emerging filmmakers.
Ove, 85, was recently made a Knight of the British Empire at the annual New Year’s Honors ceremony, for his pioneering contribution to British film and media. While there are few people less deserving of the title than the man dubbed the godfather of black British cinema, the irony of the empire bestowing one of its highest honors on one of its most ferocious is not lost on his son, the artist Zak Ové.
“The real irony is that he was advocating for British society to be the best of itself. Britain will never be the same again, multiculturalism is now imprinted in all aspects of British society and has changed British culture Decades ago, Horace begged British society to accept that this is its trump card.
“I think his knighthood is a celebration of him being an ancestor and a speaking artist to and for black Britons. It is recognition of his contribution to making Britain a better place. His message is that if you’re not careful these issues will remain yours for decades and it’s time you recognized these young black Britons as your own,” Zak told Kitcharee in a WhatsApp exchange on Friday.
Zak, a respected sculptor and visual artist, curated ‘Get Up, Stand Up Now’ at Somerset House in London in 2019 as a tribute to his father’s life and his art to show the connectedness of the artist’s frame arrived in the United Kingdom (UK).
“I saw with my own eyes how Horace Ové’s stories were always such a powerful tool for people to connect with. As a black person growing up in Britain, you will have heard your parents’ stories of their racial struggles, but nothing is more powerful than putting pictures and film to those stories and seeing them come to life.
Zak describes his father as “an artist forced to create”. The one who ensured that at a young age his children – Genieve, Zak, Indra, Ezana and Kaz – had a voice.
“His chosen tools as a young man were the exciting mediums of his time – namely, photography and film. Horace, like many photographers in the pre-digital era, worked to find that ‘single image’. He strove to get in the moment; step on his toes, push his way through, make sure he could capture his image,” Zak said. Lost in the act of creating, Ové does not s is never focused on creating or passing on a legacy, Zak dictated.
“I don’t think as an artist at the time of creation you really think about legacy. The “future maybe” is irrelevant or irrelevant to the act of doing. The artist works in the now, the present, and this is also what Horace did. He was firmly in his present time,” Zak said.
A start in wartime
Ové was born to store owners Lawrence and Lorna on December 3, 1936 in Belmont. Its formative post-war years were shaped by a turbulent multicultural society, led by radical philosophers and colonial unrest. He witnessed the rise of the pan as a new working class sound and grew up in the calypso era of the ‘badjohn’.
In a 1996 interview with British film publication Black Film Bulletin, Ové recalled falling in love with film as a young boy living in Port of Spain.
“I’m from Trinidad where I was influenced by film and TV so I was a real movie bug. From the age of nine I wanted to be a filmmaker, something I never told anyone in Trinidad because at that time they would have laughed at me.
“I watched all types of movies: from action movies to very serious dramas from the 30s, 40s and 50s. Trinidad had a proliferation of movie theaters when I was growing up because we had seven US military bases on the island , so we were lucky to have many cinemas. I went to a little movie theater in my area called the Olympic Theater, and that’s where all my movie exposure started,” Ové said.
Inspired by Carnival
Ové’s cinematic style is inspired by Carnival and his experiences in colonial Trinidad, Zak said.
Once he emigrated to the UK in the 1960s, Ové took the splendor of the farmhouse to the streets of London, helping to establish the famous Notting Hill Carnival in the British capital. He openly exchanged ideas with a close-knit group of West London West Indian writers, playwrights, poets, dancers, musicians and singers.
“Born from the theatricality of Carnival and a multicultural Caribbean, Horace would develop his own intuitive, filmic style – a noir aesthetic cinematic language with which to tell his stories. His visual commentary across all mediums pictorially documented how, for the first time, articulate black voices rose up to hold the world accountable for the neglect and injustice that had been our story and our story up to that time.They were a hip crowd and they knew the importance of their voice and their right to exist as equals,” Zak continued.
Ové investigated what it was like to be black in Britain at that time. His 1971 film Black Safari, a spoof documentary following a group of explorers on the back in search of the heartland of the United Kingdom, parodies the white explorer’s tale.
“My father carefully observed the times he found himself living in and had the insight to record and transcribe, through film, photography and script. There aren’t many people 60s in the position of Horace who have done this; only a handful in fact, and that’s part of why Horace’s work and legacy is so relevant today as we watch his work and we ask where we are today; politically, racially and socially.
“In Black Safari, this historical attitude is reversed. Britain and its people are instead inspected and found wanting. It undoes the notion of what is considered ‘known’ and therefore familiar and ‘right’. The importance of this type of parody lies in humor as a leveler. If you can laugh at yourself, you might rethink your perspective. Parody race comedy creates an opportunity for uncomfortable and personal ‘self-control’ in the viewer and in doing so develops a narrative for public multicultural education,” Zak said.
The purist form of expression
Zak believes that, although now essential and important, his father’s work at the time was simply an expression of his own humor and perspective, as opposed to a deliberate attempt at deeper self-analysis.
“When I think about his legacy on a personal level, it was Horace’s natural ability to question – that’s his legacy to me. Horace was always a great personality, a strength. He taught me to question and talk; not just for me, but for others who couldn’t; for injustice and fairness, and not to worry if I made people around me uncomfortable by doing it. He showed me how to deal with a situation and make it count,” Zak said.
Zak remembers working alongside his father on the 1985 film about the Bhopal gas tragedy in India, Who Shall We Tell. He said Ové insisted on bringing a human side to the disaster in the face of impersonal reporting focusing on its legal and political implications.
“Horace was determined that these people be seen as such; people, like you and me, not just a bunch of Indians thousands of miles away.
“Give voice to the common individual, whoever he may be; telling their story, being sensitive to that person’s issues and struggles, is the basis of Horace’s work and why he shines today,” he said.
More than a father, Ové was a brother and a friend for Zak. He shared the keys to his kingdom and validated the opinions of his children.
“In many ways, we fell in love with his passions. That’s the real legacy. I guess in my own practice I feel like I’ve come full circle. This maturity taught me how important his legacy will always be to me. This legacy is really about choosing to act in the face of injustices and realizing that change is yours. I always look at life through its lens. It helps me focus on the decisions I’m making and where to put my energy,” Zak concluded.