Directed by Ken Loach, Written by Paul Laverty
I, Daniel Blake, first released almost a year ago, has recently hit Toronto cinemas. The film tells the story of a 59-year-old Newcastle man, burdened with a weak heart and computer illiteracy, who befriends a homeless single mother and her two kids; and challenges a welfare bureaucracy that displays Catch-22 levels of absurdity. British Labour MP John McDonnell praised the film stating ““We’re living in an I, Daniel Blake society as a result of having the Tories in power for six years. The government should be caring for sick and disabled people, not making their lives worse.”
The film’s relevance was, in a way, highlighted, by a recent “scandal” in which Guardians of the Galaxy actor Chris Pratt complained that there were not enough Hollywood movies about “blue collar” characters (characters he could relate to). Pratt’s comments were criticized as, amongst other things, baseless, and he briskly apologized. Why am I evoking this tabloid (non-)story? Because regardless of how informed Chris Pratt’s comment was, it might have been on to something.
Yes, there may be no shortage of films about blue collars Americans, and yes, especially in the Trump era, rhetoric about “blue collar Americans” has developed racial (ie white privileging) undertones. But while those facts may problematize Pratt’s comment, they does not invalidate it. Manchester by the Sea may have starred a working class character, but its primary focus was on his struggle with grief. Paterson might have been the story of a bus driver, but his socioeconomic status was presented as, at worst, a source of monotony, not marginalization. Chris Pratt may have played a shoeshine boy on Parks and Recreation, but his character was not so much a struggling worker, but a loveable man-child. There may be no lack of media depictions of working class characters, but how many of these pieces question the socioeconomic system that creates working class people? Perhaps what Pratt should have said is that there is a lack of films with blue collar consciousness.
The power of I, Daniel Blake is that it brims with class-consciousness; it is a story about how un-nuanced, sanction-happy, state bureaucracies perpetuate poverty. The film’s protagonist himself is class conscious. Daniel never misses a chance to criticize the failings of the British welfare system, be it with gentle anger or a deriding grin. I, Daniel Blake is also important in that it tells a working class story, a working class anti-government story, and yet it falls firmly on the left, even as right-wing politicians like Donald Trump and Theresa May claim to be voices of the working class. And while I, Daniel Blake is still centered around a white man, it makes clear its understanding of “the working class” is inclusive, as seen through Daniel’s teasing, but friendly relationship with his neighbour China, a young black man, and more prominently his investment in the wellbeing of secondary protagonist Katie.
I, Daniel Blake is an important film and its importance arguably overshadows its limitations. Daniel is an incredibly sympathetic figure, and his bittersweet story arc may not appeal to those who seek more experimental characters and story lines. At the same time, Daniel’s excessive goodness is not without its merits. In a piece for Daily Extra, Cicley-Belle Blain, discussed how powerful the moment in Moonlight is in which Juan assures a young Chiron that “f****t” is a nasty words and that it is ok to be gay. Blain, noted how audiences have been biased against African American men to a degree that seeing one as not-homophobic is somehow shocking. I, Daniel Blake similarly “shocks” audiences by showing a (white) working class man, not as an angry, misogynistic, Brexiter but a compassionate soul, who is not above a little peaceful civil disobedience now and then.
I, Daniel Blake is a politically important film…perhaps a first step in reclaiming “working class” as an identity of the left. While its message perhaps compromises the quality of its narrative, the film is not without powerful and informative scenes: most notably its depictions of the absurd conversations Daniel has in welfare offices. Be sure to catch this film in cinemas if you want to do your part towards making Chris Pratt feel better represented in the word of cinema.