Watching I, Daniel Blake I am not ashamed to say I was moved to tears. I left the cinema still welling up inside. It does take a lot to make me cry, but an overwhelming sadness was not the only thing I felt. The other feeling can only be described as white-hot fury. I can still feel the heat of that burning anger now.
It’s not that the film shows us what we didn’t know, it’s that the film conveys the reality some of us know all too well. Dan embodies the suffering and humiliation of benefit claimants. Katie and her children stands for the single-mums and their plight in these dark times. I thought of my mother as I watched Katie go hungry to feed her children — as my mum so often did.
We know what it was like to live in damp houses without proper heating or appliances. We know what it was like to live from hand to mouth with the fear of not being able to make the rent and the bills. We know how to fill a bath with water boiled in a kettle because there is no hot water. We know how to get to sleep on bare floorboards.
Truly morally-stunted people will dismiss I, Daniel Blake as just a work of fiction from an old left-wing filmmaker. These people are irredeemable. You can’t expect people like Toby Young and Kwasi Kwarteng to see the truth that they are paid not to see. There is no point trying to persuade these people of the scale of misery in this country. It is no accident the degradation of poor people escapes their purview.
It’s not like it is common for a film to take the side of the benefit claimant, one of the most demonised figures in British society. We live with Benefits Street and Jeremy Kyle, where the unemployed are presented as a bunch of free-loading scumbags. People who need a dose of tough love. By contrast,I, Daniel Blake has been criticised for showing us an unemployed man, who is not dysfunctional and struggling with addiction.
Daniel Blake is out of work because of no fault of his own. His bad heart means he can’t work, yet he is found fit for work by the job centre. He comes across Katie and her kids, who have been sent to live in Newcastle having been evicted by a landlord in London. We follow Dan and Katie through hungry queues at food banks and the bureaucracy of the benefits system. Yes, people do live like this in real life.
This is not a saccharine depiction of working-class life. It is not ‘sentimental’ to portray an unemployed man with a moral compass. Middle-class people are often shown on film as upstanding, moral citizens with few problems (except maybe a break-up or the odd murder). Meanwhile the only problem facing the super-rich is what to do with all their ill-gotten gains, as we see in movies like Wolf Of Wall Street.
In this regard, Ken Loach has succeeded in capturing the travails of working-class people without concessions to the gutter press and its view of poor people. It would be inappropriate to show Dan smoking dozens fags and drinking his way through six packs of cheap lager every night. Not to mention the fact that the man suffered a major heart attack.
So we’re meant to expect an irresponsible feckless stereotype as a representative of the out-of-work poor. Shell suits, Burberry caps and roll-ups are in order. Cans of watered down lager, obligatory. Anything short of this tabloid image is ‘unrealistic’. This is what we’re led to believe by the chattering classes. It’s almost as if working-class pride has been erased from public life.
Working-class people are regularly stripped of their dignity. You can see this whenever you turn on daytime television or open a red-top newspaper.I, Daniel Blake covers the form this humiliation takes at the job centre. Ken Loach and Paul Laverty are not obliged to play to the middle-classes and how they view less privileged people.
The critics who deny the film’s accuracy confirm its truth in doing so. The media response shows you why I, Daniel Blake is accurate and why it had to be made. It is a fictional account of what happens to ordinary people, both good and bad. The point is that if you are a respectable member of the ‘deserving’ poor, the system will not spare you. There are no exceptions and the odds are stacked against a happy ending.
If there weren’t thousands of Daniel Blakes across Britain, this film would have never been made and it would not be dismissed if it weren’t true. Too many people don’t like the truth. It’s inconvenient and often painful to accept. Like many great film makers Ken Loach raises a mirror and demands that we look at ourselves. So he should. And we are obliged to do so.
This article was originally written for Notes from the Underclass.