“Could I recommend the Prime Minister supports British cinema and takes herself along to see a Palme d’Or-winning film, I, Daniel Blake?” Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said to Theresa May in parliament last November. “And while she’s doing so perhaps she could take the Work and Pensions secretary with her because he described the film as ‘monstrously unfair’ and then went on to admit that he’d never seen it . . . but I’ll tell the Prime Minister what’s monstrously unfair: ex-servicemen like David Clapson dying without food in his home due to the government’s sanctions regime.” The recommendation was made during Prime Minister’s Questions, a theatrical weekly event in which MPs sitting on green leather upholstery grill their nation’s leader and jeer with approval or disapproval, depending on their allegiance. Corbyn brought up the film in response to May’s defense of benefits sanctions, a policy used to punish welfare recipients by withholding their payments.
The film Corbyn was recommending is British director Ken Loach’s twenty-sixth movie, and his second to win the coveted prize awarded each year at Cannes. The story centers on Dan, or Daniel Blake, a widower from Newcastle who has a heart attack while working on a building site. He tries to sign on for disability benefits to tide him over after his doctor tells him to rest for six weeks. But a “healthcare professional” appointed by the government tells him he’s fit to work, and therefore must sign on for Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) instead. This puts him in a curious bind. To qualify for JSA, he must spend thirty-five hours a week applying for jobs or risk being sanctioned—losing his benefits payments—even though his doctor has advised against it. His protests fall on deaf ears. He is told to wait for a letter from “the decision maker.” The film follows Dan’s attempts to navigate the bureaucratic hellscape of the benefits system, a system that is cruel and mundane in equal measure. We see him stuck on expensive phone calls listening to hold music for over an hour as he tries to clarify his situation. We see him take a trip to a food bank with Katie, a young single mother he befriends in the Jobcentre after she is also sanctioned for arriving minutes late for her appointment.
Loach, a staunch Corbyn supporter, grew up in what he has described as a “working-class Tory” household—meaning his Dad was thrifty, read the right-wing tabloid the Daily Express, and wanted his son to become a lawyer. After a stint in the RAF, Loach attended Oxford, where he took up acting. There, as he says in Versus, a documentary about his life and work also released last year, he “learned the ruling class had a face, and it was the faces of these gilded youths who were expected to inherit the earth and rule it—and did.” He took this realization and channeled it not into a political career, but into making movies that documented the lives of the people ruled by those Oxford grads. Politics affects his characters’ lives, but they’re often not political actors in their own right. The eighty-year-old’s career includes films about the labor movement, like Bread and Roses, about the Justice for Janitors campaign in Los Angeles; documentaries about unions and politics in the UK; and historical dramas about the Spanish and Irish civil wars. But his best films are contemporary fictional stories about people who have barely any power—the casually or illegally employed, children and teenagers, men and women on benefits, mothers who’ve lost their homes.
I, Daniel Blake is not the first of Loach’s films to become fodder in a national political debate about how we choose to treat people who experience hard times. In 1966, when Cathy Come Home appeared on British television, it led to discussions in parliament and to the establishment of the UK’s largest homelessness charity, Shelter. It also caused a stir among many viewers who couldn’t tell if they were watching a fictional film or a documentary. The characters were played by actors, but the film included real-life statistics about the UK’s homelessness crisis. At the time, Loach was testing out some of the social-realist techniques for which he has become well known. Loach hires unknown actors and amateurs, and films scenes in chronological order. His cast members don’t know in advance what’s going to happen next, allowing them to experience genuine emotional turmoil when their characters come up against unjust systems. In Cathy Come Home, when social services agents drag Cathy’s kids away from her as she sits on a bench, homeless after being kicked out of a shelter, the actress wails like a real mother with nothing left. The food bank scene in I, Daniel Blake is almost as shocking, and harder to watch if you know that the use of food banks has exploded since the Conservative Party introduced benefits sanctions: the Trussell Trust handed out over a million food packages in 2015–16. Food banks have become an essential lifeline, but they haven’t managed to save everybody. In 2015 statistics released by the Department of Work and Pensions showed that nearly ninety people per month were dying after being found fit for work and having their disability benefits cut.
Much of the public response to I, Daniel Blake has focused on whether the story it tells is true or not. In February, the same week the movie won Outstanding British Film at the BAFTA awards, the manager of a Jobcentre Plus in Newcastle said, “I hope people don’t think the film is a documentary, because it’s a story that doesn’t represent the reality we work in.” Loach responded citing the research that had gone into the film, which included testimony from former Jobcentre employees who revealed they were expected to sanction people to meet quotas decided by the government. In November the UK’s National Audit Office released a report that showed that almost one in four Jobseeker’s Allowance claimants were sanctioned between 2011 and 2015. The report also shows the government has no evidence for its claims that sanctions encourage people to get back to work and has little interest in finding out the real effects.
What exactly critics mean when they say the film doesn’t represent reality has not been clear. The Jobcentre manager went on to say: “My team and I try to treat people as individuals. . . . There will be times when we get it wrong, but I don’t believe we are ever as wrong as how we are portrayed in this film.” He didn’t deny there are sanctions quotas, nor that those sanctions lead people to visit food banks. Instead, by suggesting his staff would never get it so wrong as to sanction a person like Daniel Blake, he’s making an argument about whether the people who do receive sanctions deserve them or not.
Dan is an archetype of the deserving poor. A white, British-born, blue-collar worker who’s toiled all his life without complaint, he is eager to get back to work. He doesn’t seem to have any vices. His hobbies are listening to classical music and carving wind chimes out of wood. He had a heart attack, but doesn’t smoke. When he bumps into a friend in the street who invites him to the pub, he declines, we assume, because he doesn’t have enough cash. (The lack of a pub scene is striking; Loach usually includes at least one night of revelry in his films, a welcome break from all of the bleakness for both characters and viewers.) The other central character, Katie, is just as sympathetic. While we see her breaking the law twice after she’s sanctioned—she shoplifts and takes up sex work—she does it to provide for her two young children.
Loach’s decision to make his characters such good guys is understandable given the stereotypes of benefits recipients prevalent in British culture, the most notorious example being Benefits Street, a controversial but well-known reality TV show about a street in Birmingham where 90 percent of residents claim benefits. The popularity of the show—more than 4 million viewers tuned in when it screened in 2014—led to the creation of something like a genre. One night in 2015, Channel 5’s schedule included five hours of reality shows about people on welfare—including My Big Fat Benefit Wedding: Live!; Benefits and Bypasses, a documentary about how working-class people’s bad habits cost the NHS; and a double bill of Undercover Benefits Cheat. Popular British newspapers like the Sun and the Daily Mail are also infamous for perpetuating insidious myths about how much money British taxpayers spend on immigrants and ne’er-do-wells.
The people who appeared in Benefits Street claim they were duped by the show’s creators, who assured them the series would be about community spirit. Instead, as one of the subjects told the Birmingham Mail, “It’s all about people in the street living off benefits, taking drugs and dossing around all day. It makes people out as complete scum.” I, Daniel Blake overturns this caricature. But in making his characters so virtuous, Loach doesn’t challenge the perception that benefits should only go to clean-living, deserving Brits (the film also doesn’t address Brexit, but the Leave campaign bolstered the idea that immigrants are a strain on the nation’s resources).
Since the film’s release there have been numerous articles about the “real Daniel Blakes” who’ve experienced severe hardship while trying to get state support. In her response to Corbyn’s suggestion that she watch the movie, Theresa May deflected the idea by pointing to the proportion of taxpayers who want to know where their money is going and how it’s spent. Before February’s by-elections in Copeland and Stoke, which were seen as a measure of how Labour is faring under Corbyn’s leadership, Momentum put on free screenings of I, Daniel Blake alongside Loach’s documentary about Labour’s postwar victory and the establishment of the beloved National Health Service (NHS), The Spirit of ’45. Labour won in Stoke, but lost in Copeland, a loss that was all the more jarring because it had been a Labour seat since 1935 and opposition parties rarely lose by-elections. The Tories are riding high in opinion polls. Though the NHS remains very popular, the mood of Britain couldn’t feel more different from the solidarity of the postwar era Loach portrayed in The Spirit of ’45.
Natasha Lewis is a senior editor at Dissent.