Indie Film - ‘I, Daniel Blake’ (2018) and The Bleak Disposability of the Working Class

A thought-provoking look into the systematic failures of the welfare system

Matthew Barratt
3rd November 2022
Still from the film - Image courtesy of @SocialistVoice on Twitter
Director Ken Loach won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for this 2018 feature, targeting the flaws of the welfare system and its effects on the working classes, making it an ever-relevant film in regards to the United Kingdom’s current economic state.

Loach’s bleak and depressing Newcastle-based drama I, Daniel Blake gives the audience insight into the life of titular middle-aged carpenter, Daniel Blake, who has been advised by an NHS consultant to refrain from his work after a sudden heart attack has left him weak and vulnerable. After undertaking the Work Capability Assessment, a ten-minute phone call, Daniel is deemed ineligible for benefits and the welfare that he has applied for is rejected. While he makes an appeal, Daniel is forced to take Jobseeker’s Allowance, granted he can prove that he is searching for work that he has been advised to not undertake due to his failing health. Loach puts Daniel in a Catch-22 situation in which he is unable to escape from it as the victor, or at least with a barely positive outcome.

The whole ordeal locks Daniel into a cycle that he can’t benefit from, keeping him entangled within the welfare system which doesn’t seem interested in helping him as much as it wants to provide him with the bare minimum; constantly threatened with the withdrawal of his allowance whilst being labelled a scrounger and a leach despite the risks to his health if he were to find genuine work. Being a self-made man who has built a living for himself with, quite literally, his bare hands, Daniel is treated with hostility and suspicion by government officials during his many attempts to appeal his situation, effectively reduced to a line of code on a computer system and online documentation forming the content of his character rather than his history of upstanding citizenship and repertoire of hard work.

Building on this further is Loach’s commentary on the technological state of the world and the traditional working class groups who have found themselves left behind, with Daniel’s inability to properly use a computer effectively rendering his attempts to fill out application forms useless; within a society that has progressed towards technology as the primary function of communication in the modern age, we have excluded and neglected those who have lagged behind.

Adding to the poignancy of Loach’s film is Daniel’s friendship with a single-mother, Katie, who has been isolated from all social ties and rehoused in Newcastle. At first seeming like a far-cry from the homeless shelters of London, Katie’s gradual descent into the same cycle of unemployment and financial deprivation that Daniel has fallen victim to probes the question of whether her rehousing has improved the lives of her children, with foodbanks becoming the lifeline for her family. All of this comes together to assess the value of a human life that is viewed as disposable within the context of the welfare state and a government that provides the minimal support to its most valuable.

It becomes evident that Ken Loach’s critiques of the welfare system are rooted in virile anger, provoking strong reactions from the audience at the ineptitude of the system and the characters that fall helplessly at its mercy, scrambling for even the smallest amount of help and kindness but are instead dehumanized and neglected. What remains is Daniel’s desire to cling to the only thing he still has left: his self-respect, even if that means his assets are taken from him and his financial security becomes void. From this, Loach assesses the unfortunate realities of many working-class families and individuals who have slipped between the cracks of contemporary society, particularly in the areas of England that have long been impacted by economic instability as well as geographical and cultural isolation.

I, Daniel Blake is a devastating reflection of the lives that many families continue to face, with foodbanks, the destitute job market in the North of England and financial dependency on the absolute minimum becoming more relevant than ever in the face of United Kingdom’s economic instability due to the cost-of-living crisis.

And yet as the crisis worsens, as working class families are having to decide whether to feed their children or keep them warm and inflation hits a forty year high, its dismal that a film released not even six years ago has become an embodiment of the United Kingdom’s current systematic negligence of those who contribute the most and receive little in return when they need safety and stability at their lowest points.

I, Daniel Blake is available to rent on Prime Video.

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