Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
‘We are all products of our environment’. The tagline of Ben Drew’s (aka musician Plan B) debut film suggests viewers might expect a realistic, polemical account of life on the periphery of Britain’s underclass. Ill Manors, however, fails to interrogate the antagonistic oppressive political system that ushers in the social ills featured, including the illicit drugs trade, gun and knife crime, and prostitution. The film represents a missed opportunity and is a frustrating watch: at this point in time, it could and should have made a potent political impact.
In his essay ‘Narrate or Describe’, philosopher Georg Lukacs clarifies the distinction between naturalism and realism in literature. Naturalism is detail-oriented, but shows no grasp of the social dynamics of the life it is portraying. Realism explores social relationships within a narrative structure that allows contradictions within the fictional world to build into revealing action. Ill Manors fits firmly in the naturalism corner: is it pure description.
The film, set over seven days on a council estate in Forest Gate, features six interweaving stories about eight characters connected to the drugs trade.
The action revolves around Aaron (Riz Ahmend) and his best friend Ed (Ed Skrein), who have both been raised in foster care. The two become embroiled in a vicious moneymaking scheme to retrieve a stolen phone that begins with prostitution and ends, shockingly, with the sale of an abandoned new-born baby. Set to a soundtrack of urgent hip-hop music, which gives backstory to the characters, we see Forest Gate inhabitants trying to succeed, survive, and liberate themselves from their circumstances, with tragic consequences.
Drew recently told The Guardian that his characters ‘act the way they do because of the shit that happened to them that wasn’t their fault’. Yet, while the surface details of the world feel accurate, the acting is strong and the narrative structure and themes interesting, Ill Manors ultimately represents a crisis of working class morality, as opposed to a critique of ineffective political agendas. It is ‘gritty’ drama in a social vacuum.
Notably absent are the political institutions marginalising the working class every day. The characters seem to exist in a context untouched by austerity cuts. There’s no interaction between the kids and the authorities at school and viewers are left wondering about teachers’ attitudes to their students. Unemployment is not even touched upon, and there’s little sense of characters being embedded in the socio-political climate that forces entry into the drugs trade. Shamefully, the setting fits nicely into a particular political ideology that already regards council estates as natural habitats for theft, drug dealing and abuse, benefit fraud, youth delinquency and financial improvidence.
The characters’ living environment is not enviable, but this language of realism neglects the distinctive injustices faced by those trapped in marginalised, crime-ridden housing estates. Instead, it emphasises some of the ills these people face while ignoring other, more lasting harms; substandard housing, class discrimination, and police harassment and abuse motivated by racial animus.
Drew is not the first, or only filmmaker to offer a problematic portrayal of working-class existence. But his approach comes at a significant cost. The exaggerated behaviour of a demographic, regarded by some Conservatives as the genesis of social problems, will distort the genuine political issue of social exclusion. Worse, by staying above the fray of socio-political and ideological conflict, the film seems to have commanded guilty yet unequivocal applause from liberal sectors.
Worryingly, the film is being held up as the article of faith by commentators seeking to contextualise social problems. Camila Batmanghelidjh, the founder of Kids Company suggests in The Observer that Ill Manors is ‘an incredibly accurate portrait’ of the lower reaches of British society. Decca Aitkenhead in The Guardian confidently states that, ‘social commentators are already talking about its political significance, and reviewing last year’s riots through the prism of its lens.’ However, it is impossible to subscribe to either assertion when considering the films semantics.
Ill Manors provides voyeuristic material to an educated, liberal and middle-class audience. Cinematically and conceptually, the film shifts energy and intention away from thinking via visible political and institutional frameworks and into the socio-cultural domain. This is where social inequality is defined by delinquent behaviour, cultural abstractions and financial improvidence. The approach to the various social issues, which now fall under the derogatory label of ‘the underclass’, encourages us to believe that the worst social injury these people suffer are self-inflicted.
Film is more than just a visual experience. It has the capacity to affect political imagination. This is why we find filmic political engagement so compelling. But in order to achieve this, we need to look to the details of political institutions and public policy. The important opposition is between government and society, not the individual and his or her moral or cultural code. It’s clear that Drew is trying to create a consciousness, but effort alone is not enough.
What is needed is solid political justice, not intellectual handwringing over the behavioural aspects of the supposed underclass. The narrative message that personal (mis)behaviour determines life’s opportunities smacks of the pervasive Tory discourse of meritocracy. Such arguments reduce lived reality to a conflict between the working-class and their behavioural decisions. The landscape of social inequality in Coalition Britain is much more complex than that.
You can find the official website for Ill Manors at: http://www.illmanors.com/#scene-0
The Spanish state is seizing ballot papers and raiding meetings, write Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte – but it is being met with united resistance
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go
Dipesh Pandya speaks to documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who for 30 years has been working outside the mainstream to tell a story rooted in the struggles of those excluded by India’s militarism and its narrative of neoliberal growth
Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
Disasters have unequal impacts – it's the poor and marginalised who suffer most. David Harvey writes on Hurricane Harvey
Survivors of the fire are still relying on thousands of community volunteers, writes Dan Renwick - but the failed council is plotting a comeback
What if it's not us who are sick, asks Rod Tweedy, but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?
The people could reach a democratic and non-violent solution if they were freed from US meddling, argues Boaventura de Sousa Santos
A decade after the start of the crash, economic power is in our hands – we must take it, writes Ann Pettifor
Nick Dowson looks at the new wave of co-ops and community groups where people are building their own truly affordable homes
What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains
The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going
A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism
Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase
Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields
Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton
Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi
A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain
Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank
Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded
West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens
Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age
Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today
The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics
Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.
Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making
Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show
The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services
With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi
Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun
Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh
With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament