Growing up in Trinidad as a young boy Horace Ové would scramble up the wall of the American army base and perch on top to watch the dazzling Hollywood films being shown on a big screen for the soldiers.

As he grew up on the Caribbean island, then colonised by the British Empire, he spent every penny he could on visiting the few small cinemas on the island and was mesmerised by the French, Spanish and Italian films he saw.

That dedication, coupled with the creative influence of growing up in the home of carnival, surrounded by costume-makers and decorators, saw him travel to England as a young man with the intention of becoming a filmmaker.

He went on to become the first black, British filmmaker to direct a feature-length film and his prolific career has seen him document racism and the Black Power movement in Britain over many decades, through photography and film.

But it was not an easy path.

“Cold, rain and very, very white,“ says Horace, who now lives in Crouch End, recalling his arrival in England.

“The style of living was incredibly formal and people were far from polite, they were not welcoming in any way.“ Incredibly his first foray into filmmaking was as an extra on Cleopatra, where he briefly met Elizabeth Taylor who was starring in it.

“That experience was really fascinating. Not easy, as we were pushed around a bit, but it was amazing to watch the film being made, that was massively inspiring to me.“

He lived in Brixton, West Hampstead and Camden Town during those early years, met and married Irish immigrant Mary Irvine and began studying at the London School of Film Technique.

“I encountered terrible racism at that time, that came because Britain had colonised the Caribbean so there was that sense of British rule. People were very unpleasant and treated me like a slave. At that time everywhere you went, on the doors it said ‘No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs’ and Mary had to battle against that on a daily basis.“

He was kept going by his heroes – parents Lorna and Lawrence – who were the first people to open shops or cafés in Trinidad to help the poor black population.

“That was a real inspiration to me and my work,“ says Horace who is being celebrated with a retrospective at ArtHouse in Crouch End, which includes screenings of three of his films and an exhibition of some of his most hard-hitting political photographs.

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Horace’s photograph titled Michael X and the Black Power Movement at Paddington station, 1970

While he made a life-long friend in writer James Baldwin, during the making of his 1968 film Baldwin’s Nigger, which discusses the Civil Rights Movement of the time, and loved every moment of shooting a concert at Wembley for his 1971 film Reggae, making the full-length film Pressure, about a British-born son of an immigrant family from Trinidad who finds himself adrift between two cultures, was perhaps the hardest thing he has ever done (see a scene from the film below).

“I was very, very aware that I was the first black man in Britain to make a feature film,“ says the father-of-four whose children include actress Indra Ové and director Kaz Ové.

“The white producer Robert Buckler wanted to make a film that depicted the very new London of that time that suddenly had this new West Indian population. Nobody was interested or saw the relevance, and then he met me and I was just as passionate as him about depicting the subject and the struggle that the black people were facing at that time. But also the poor, working class British person as well, how they were living. I wanted to show the truth of that.“

Seeing it finished was his proudest moment and when asked if he felt like a pioneer he says: “Yes because I was lucky enough to have parents that were also pioneers and they spoored that in me.“

So what does the 79-year-old, whose work is still shown around the world and is in demand by the Tate and British Library, think of London today?

“There are still a lot of problems facing young black people, but I think the good thing is they have learnt how to live well within the community and to aspire and have ambition within their struggles.

“Back in the day people were far more subservient and downtrodden and now they have far more ambition and know how to survive against all odds.

“There’s a greater understanding between the communities,“ says the grandfather, “and the black population isn’t such an outsider.“

ArtHouse, Tottenham Lane, Crouch End, until May 18. Details: