Making and Remaking Class in Ken Loach's Recent Films

By Forsyth, Scott | CineAction, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Making and Remaking Class in Ken Loach's Recent Films


Forsyth, Scott, CineAction


Ken Loach has always been a favourite of the Toronto International Film festival. In 1991, he was featured with a complete retrospective and his new films premiere each year, celebrated at festivals though not often theatrically released. Of course, Loach does not fit the cynical right wing times, he is the master filmmaker of the working class, and his militant socialism has never wavered. His extraordinary body of work over 40 years--Cathy Come Home, Kes, the magisterial Days of Hope, Hidden Agenda, Riff-Raff, Ladybird, Ladybird, and Land and Freedom, to name just a few--offers a panoramic but intimate exploration of working class politics and everyday life, particularly in the British isles, but always internationally conscious as well. Loach's films have powerfully addressed the politics and betrayals of unions, strikes and revolutions, the painful daily struggles with family, sexuality, race, housing, poverty, drugs and alcohol, the contradictions and inhumanity of the welfare state, the solidarity and oppression of the workplace; every aspect of working class life interests his humane realism. That realism has outlasted the censorship battles that marked so many of his early television films and has survived in its power and popularity despite the ignominious targeting of Loach by the sectarian Screen Theorists of the seventies. Loach's is a cinema of emotion and analysis, sometimes didactic (and that is not always a bad thing), always partisan. But victories are few and far between, triumphs often solely of working class spirit against overwhelming odds.

Over the last decade, Loach's films have repeatedly come back to the ravages of and struggles against the ruling class offensive known as neo-liberalism. The attack on working people's living standards, wages and unions, the relentless erosion of the social, health and educational provisions of the so-called welfare state, the polarization of rich and poor, the familiar mantras of privatization, deregulation, free market magic are all too well known. If this onslaught is still emblematized by Thatcher and Reagan, it is now generalized as blatantly imperialist globalization, borne by the World Bank, the IMF and American military might. Loach's films of the last few years have looked prismatically at where working people stand in this epochal change and the restructuring of class relations, from the workers' eyes.

Bread and Roses (2000) is set within a recent victory, at least partially, for working class struggle: the successful organization and strike by janitors in California, largely illegal Mexican immigrants. The film is a celebration of class militance against the brutal new conditions of Iowpay contingent service work, but characteristically Loach focuses as much on the personal costs and pain of that struggle.

The Navigators (2001) takes us right within the heart of Thatcherite Britain, to the virtual opposite of the California optimism of the janitors' small triumph. The film offers a series of tableau's among the workers of a British Rail maintenance crew. The narrative spine is provided by the privatization of this public corporation, a legacy Blair has continued to pursue despite years of accidents and scandals. The film centres on the relationships among the men and a few women in the workplace. Written by a former rail worker, the stories give viewers a privileged access to what the day's work is like, what workers talk about, how they act with each other, how they fight and joke. But this goes beyond a simple idea of naturalism. …

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