Cannes 2023 Review: THE OLD OAK, Exploitative Racism Melodrama Is An Embarrassment
British director Ken Loach unveiled the final film of his decades-long career at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions. We surely hope to find director Ken Loach and writer Paul Laverty quite toasty there for their offensive, ridiculous racism drama The Old Oak, which premiered in Competition at Cannes.
That Loach and Laverty are absolutely lovely men cannot be in doubt. And that they seek to spread a positive message is readily apparent. But that is scant excuse to saddle us with such an unnecessary and uncalled-for fantasy glorifying the triumph of the human spirit. At best it indicates breathtaking naivete, at worst deep ignorance and a perverse desire to score points for virtue while doing the absolute bare minimum.
The Old Oak is not a period piece but it might as well be, so utterly outdated its contrivances are. It singularly sets cinema back 80 years or something. Hollywood might have made this picture of communal bonhomie in the 1940s and the crowds that adored Guess Who's Coming To Dinner in 1967 might squirm at how outmoded The Old Oak in 2023 is.
It centers on a decrepit, rundown watering hole, The Old Oak, in a mining town that time has supposedly passed by. The town of almost exclusively white residents is rattled when several Syrian refugee families are settled there in cheap houses.
The mustache-twirling town racists immediately get their villain on and shout slurs at the new arrivals, accusing them of soon wanting to, you guessed it, build a mosque in the town. An unlikely friendship between a young Syrian woman, Yara (Ebla Mari), and the pub’s owner, TJ (Dave Turner), may bring the communities together, solve racism and all the other ills in the world. Isn’t that how it goes for stories of this ilk?
Based on this daft premise, every single incident that you will imagine, whether in jest or unkindness, happens in this film. Writer Paul Laverty hasn’t met a single cliché that he doesn’t embrace whole-heartedly. Loach directs with such earnestness that the film presents a picture of humanity entirely alien to us, with the complexity of a cartoon where sudden personality reversals occur in a single scene.
The cheesy plotlines extend to Yara and TJ refurbishing The Old Oak to be a free meals center for the local community. When a kid tells them 'promise me you will never close this down', you can see trouble coming in the next scene.
By the end, the film’s characters manage to solve all the problems in the whole wide world because they have goodness in their hearts and appeal to the goodness in others, a novel solution that we are clearly too stupid to implement in the real world, right? This is where we need to come to terms with the damage that, even unintentionally, a film like The Old Oak can wreak.
The racism needed to overcome in Loach’s utopia is of the most overt, explicit, banal and ultimately toothless kind, the verbal and demonstrative. The villain racists basically just stop short of wearing swastikas but apart from that make themselves publicly known, passing racial comments and insulting people of color, and so forth.
As an immigrant, hearing unsavory language is annoying. But the people who use such language are not the entirety of the problem or even the main problem. These people are easily identified, easily dealt with and ultimately fewer in number.
The far more horrifying threat is from the much larger-in-number, well-meaning, open-minded, upstanding citizens of society that nevertheless practice a latent, insidious, unseen, and often unconscious brand of racism that is infinitely more damaging, harmful, and with dire consequences. It is this second, more deeply stinging kind of racism that goes absolutely unmentioned not just in Loach’s fable but in real life; even people who do not think of themselves as racists indulge in it.
Denigrating the obvious Nazis while celebrating the above group for their inclusivity is the equivalent of making a film like The Old Oak. It seeks to amass kudos and hosanas by treating the acne on the wrist, while leaving the cancer festering inside the body. It is time for us to say no, you do not deserve credit for this. Do better. Do more. Do something actually meaningful.
The lives and stories of people of color are not to be props in an endless parade of platitudes to absolve the guilt of white people, onscreen and offscreen. Movies like The Old Oak treat people of color like monoliths and rather than shining a light on their plight, perform the undesired act of brushing their problems under the rug and claiming credit for getting rid of them.
The Old Oak premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival.