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(Credit: YouTube / First Run Features)

Film

Revisiting the radical and revolutionary Lizzie Borden film 'Born in Flames'

In 1983, after five years of intermittent filming, director Lizzie Borden released her second feature film, Born in Flames. Radical in both form and content, the film is an extraordinary and unique commentary on gender, class, and race relations during Reagan’s America, set in an alternative, near-future New York, ten years after a “social-democratic war of liberation”.

Born in Flames explores the aftermath of a ‘liberated’ society that is still largely unequal. Women are still being harassed on the streets, discriminated against in the workplace, unfairly treated and overworked at home, and Black women are subjected to police brutality. In fact, it is the suspicious death of Black activist Adelaide while in police custody, labelled as a suicide, that sparks active resistance and action by the different groups of women that the film follows.

All of the characters identify as feminists, yet there are large disparities between them. The journalists are white, heteronormative middle-class women that are too focused on academic discussion than taking direct action, whereas the pirate radio presenters are either women of colour or lesbians that are considerably more proactive in their approach to furthering liberation.

Despite Lizzie Borden being a white woman, her portrayal of white feminists is critical of the kind of 1970s second wave feminism that prioritised the voices of white, middle-class, heteronormative women and greatly lacked intersectionality. Borden’s film instead encourages the unity of different kinds of women in order to learn from each other’s experiences and unite to attack the hegemonic patriarchal powers that oppress them all. In a 1983 interview, the director stated that: “I was very distraught coming to New York and living here a long time and finding that this group of feminists didn’t deal with that group of feminists. …Class and race really did divide people…. So the film was really about creating a context and reason to work with very different kinds of women.”

Eventually, the different women band together to attack the media. The Women’s Army group that radio presenters Honey (of Phoenix Radio) and Isabel (of Radio Regazza) initially refuse to join, eventually come together to commit an act of what some would describe as terrorism. Honey and Isabel broadcast Radio Regazza from stolen U-haul vans whilst the Women’s Army send a group of women to interrupt a national broadcast by the President, holding the broadcasting crew at gunpoint. Subsequently, they bomb an antenna on top of the World Trade Centre to prevent the President from broadcasting more potentially destructive messages to the public.

Borden’s 80-minute documentary-style sci-fi feminist feature, inspired by Marxist feminist writing, is a revolutionary piece of guerrilla filmmaking that champions raw and gritty cinematic techniques to convey the state of 1980s America. Its unpolished, punk aesthetics have divided viewers, yet Born in Flames could not have been filmed any other way. The film was made on a small budget of $40,000, funded by small artist’s grants and Borden’s own income (hence why it took so long to film) which gave the film its true authenticity. The movie is in no way exploitative of its women, with Borden giving the specifically more marginalised groups – Black women and lesbians – more central and integral roles in the film.

Feminist film scholar Teresa de Laurentis used the film as a starting point for her essay on the emergence of the female gaze in cinema, which counteracted Laura Mulvey’s proposition that all women in cinema are viewed from a heterosexual male audience’s perspective. De Laurentis argued that Born in Flames corrected “the invisibility of black women in white women’s films… or of lesbianism in mainstream cinema.” Sadly, Born in Flames is a rare instance in cinema of non-white and non-heterosexual women taking the spotlight. For Borden to eschew Hollywood’s white, heterosexual norms, she had to take a non-traditional approach to broadcasting her message of liberation and community. She used largely non-actors and took to filming on the streets in French New Wave style, inspired by the political films of Jean-Luc Godard.

The film’s unapologetic radicalism is often deemed an uncomfortable watch, most namely by white audiences. In an essay by Virginia Bonner, a professor at Clayton State University, she discussed the difficulty she had in showing the film to her predominantly white, middle-class students. She claimed that her students found the film disorganised, laughable, badly-acted, boring, too realistic to be deemed sci-fi. Yet, when showing the film to a more diverse mix of students some years later, she got a much better reaction. Bonner realised that “it wasn’t the film, but the lack of racial, sexual, and class diversity in those classrooms that impeded students’ awareness of their own positionality and that of others.”

Born in Flame’s themes are just as resonant today as they were back in the 1980s. A culturally diverse audience such as Bonner’s students found empowerment in the depictions of largely underrepresented women that resembled themselves. Born in Flames is an inspiration to experimental and political filmmakers alike, yet remains grossly underrated. With the film approaching its 40-year anniversary next year, there is no reason not to look back at Borden’s legendary feminist film, which heralds a message that is just as important decades later.

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