Representation of Class in “I, Daniel Blake”

For an independent film Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake (Loach, 2016) was relatively successful. It was the eighth highest grossing UK independent film of 2016 (BFI, 2017:4 ) and won Loach the Cannes film festival Palme D’or and five BAFTA awards. The film tells the fictional story of fifty nine year old Daniel Blake (played by comedian Dave Johns) who after a heart attack “must fight the bureaucratic forces of the system in order to receive Employment and Support Allowance” (IMDB, 2016).

Although the film was applauded by some, the discussion about the message of the film became divisive. It was paraded by left-wing journalists and politicians as evidence of the effect of austerity, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn called it a showcase of the “institutionalised barbarity against often very vulnerable people” (Official Jeremy Corbyn Channel, 2016). The Guardian’s chief film critic Mark Kermode in his review entitled “A battlecry for the dispossessed” (Kermode: 2016) called the film “a polemical indictment of a faceless benefits bureaucracy that strips claimants of their humanity” (ibid).

In contrast Camilla Long in The Times calls the film “misery porn for smug Londoners” and writes that “for all its (…) condescending attempts at teeth-gritting realism, it feels unreal”(Long: 2016). Iain Duncan Smith who receives, by name, a very specific, personal verbal attack in the film said in a BBC Radio 4 interview that it was a “human story full of pathos and difficulty” (BBC Radio 4: 2016)  however, it focused only on “the very worst of anything that can happen to anyone” (ibid).

Toby Young’s review in The Mail (a right-wing newspaper) criticises Loach’s political standpoint, titling the article:  “Why only lefties could go misty eyed at a movie that romanticises Benefits Britain” (Young: 2016). He compares the characters in I, Daniel Blake to those in the Channel 4 documentary series Benefits Street (2014) “Daniel is a model citizen. At no point do we see him drinking, smoking, gambling, or even watching television” (ibid) and “Katie, too is a far cry from White Dee, the irresponsible character in Benefits Street” (ibid).

While Benefits Street (2014) portrays most of it’s characters as benefits fraudsters through selective editing, Ken Loach’s depiction of the people on benefits is comparatively sanitised. They are portrayed as clean and well intentioned. Even Daniel’s young neighbours are portrayed as “helpful and caring” (Willis: 2016) and “their petty scams are revealed as simply a way to make ends meet” (ibid).

Daniel is portrayed as a hard worker, who has been put in a difficult position and struggling with the bureaucracy of an Orwellian government. Even beneath the titles though at the start of the film, his comments are sarcastic, swearing at the woman asking the questions. This is how he talks to people throughout the film, such as swearing at a woman in the library trying to help him, and is almost at odds with his clean character but perhaps an opportunity for Dave Johns to promote himself as a comedian. Those sat across the desk from him in the Job Centre are also caught up in the system but in Loach’s world they are undeserving of respect and it is okay to speak to them in that way. Many of the characters in the film are heard swearing perhaps a suggestion that the people portrayed are angry. It is one of the few similarities between those characters in I, Daniel Blake and Benefits Street.

Camilla Long’s opinion that the facts were “cherry-picked” seems appropriate, almost as though the best headlines for Loach’s political agenda were selected for maximum impact and many of the situations in the film are arguably unrealistic or exaggerated.

A blog article by the Child Poverty Action Group called Advising Daniel Blake (Child Poverty Action Group: 2016) says they were “pleased to be able to provide script advice” (ibid) for the film and then goes on to explain the benefits process, including how some of the facts in the film are incorrect such as having to “spend thirty five hours a week looking for work” (ibid) and, even though Daniel’s lack of ability with a computer is a pivotal plot device, he could have “made a claim for JSA on the phone” (ibid) or a “paper form could have been sent out to him” (ibid), though this would have compromised the plot of the film.

The film fails to recognise, with the exception of food banks, the numerous charities that support societies most disadvantaged, including the Child Poverty Action Group. Food banks may be the exception because they are used by left-wing politicians as a measure of a broken society. Jeremy Corbyn spoke about “hundreds of thousands being driven to food banks” (Labour Party: 2015) in his 2015 Labour conference speech. To compound this view further screenings of the film were held at food banks. The distributer “appealed to grassroots organisations to put on screenings” (Hind, 2017:4), “around 900 times since the cinema release” says Ken Loach (Gearon, 2017).

It is arguable that Loach’s representation of the people in I, Daniel Blake is almost as biased as the one in Benefits Street. It defines people in a very polarised way, there are no shades of society in the film, there are the honest, downtrodden people on benefits and then the people who work for the government. As pointed out in Camilla Long’s review Daniel doesn’t smoke, drink or gamble and neither do any of the other characters. Even the way that they are dressed polarises the characters in the film. The working public are in scruffy, plain clothes, the “bureaucrats” are in suits or uniforms. The “bureaucrats” are shown as emotionless and unsympathetic with occasional well placed exceptions, such as the woman in the job centre who helps Daniel.

The casting of the Job Centre Office Manager, was very carefully done. The female actor is wearing a military veteran’s badge and a Help For Heroes badge. The character’s main role in the film is to reprimand a colleague, who she towers over, telling her it is “unacceptable” (I, Daniel Blake: 2016) to help Daniel and telling one of the staff to call the police when Daniel spray paints the wall of the Job Centre. It seems as though the military connection is being discreetly used to suggest the job Centre is run like a military organisation.

It could be argued that it is a fictional film, but in a copy of the script handed by writer Paul livery to Damien Green MP he wrote “we stand by every single incident as a fair reflection of what is going on today” (I, Daniel Blake Facebook page: 2016). The film feels more like propaganda dressed up as socialist realism. It portrays the “lower classes” as faultless and government workers as bureaucratic and unsympathetic and little in between.

Samantha Lay suggests that “It is difficult to separate practice from politics (…) It is also important to recognise that a film-maker’s politics influence their preferred mode of cinematic expression” (Lay, 2002:10). Although Loach has been made variations on this films themes for decades, both Loach’s and Laverty’s political leanings are somewhat divorced from this film. They both have a legal background, Laverty is a Lawyer, Loach was educated in Law at Oxford. It is questionable as to whether either Loach or Laverty have a real understanding of what the people portrayed in the film are going through. Both are arguably middle class, looking into the lower classes through their perception of what it is like. Is it possible for them to show a realistic representation of the working classes? It could be suggested that it will always be coloured by the relatively comfortable lives they have had.

Loach was also the founder of the political party Left Unity “founded because the main parties support (…) deep cuts in public spending”. It is in Loach’s political interests to portray the people in the film in the way that he has. In all of the articles and academic sources that I have viewed about I Daniel Blake, Loach’s connection to Left Unity is never mentioned. Although they also have their own political agendas and it is in their interests to show the film as they have, this alone gives credibility to critics such as Young and Long criticising the “political agenda” (Long: 2016) in the film.

In summary the film has raised questions about the UK benefits system, but does so by representing the lower classes in an ideological way, splitting them into those on benefits, portrayed in this film as angry, but hard working and honest, and those working for the state who are portrayed as unsympathetic and by-the book. At the heart of I, Daniel Blake is a weighted political message disguised as social realism. It doesn’t set the lower classes against the upper classes, instead it sets the “working classes” against each other.



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Benefits Street (2014-2015) Channel 4 television

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