friday night movie club

The Still-Burning Fire of Born in Flames

A failed progressive regime beckons collective action to meet the people’s needs. Hmm … Photo: First Run Features

Every week for the foreseeable future, Vulture will be selecting one film to watch as part of our Friday Night Movie Club. This week’s selection comes from writer Yasmina Price, who will begin her screening of Born in Flames on February 5 at 7 p.m. ET. Head to Vulture’s Twitter to catch her live commentary, and look ahead to next week’s movie here.

In a facsimile 1980s New York City, Born in Flames opens ten years after the so-called “War of Liberation” with a chirpy news announcement celebrating “the most peaceful revolution the world has known,” when the Labor Party installed a Social Democracy in the United States. It doesn’t matter that this is an egalitarian state in name only, or that the complete reorganization of society can’t even be peaceful in a parallel universe.

In 2021 New York, we find ourselves in the early days of a new administration making big promises of change and a “fresh start” in the shadow of a white-supremacist nationalist insurrection and in the midst of a global pandemic that cleaved open the flimsy fiction that our most urgent problems are new ones. Joe Biden’s presidency, just like the film’s fictional government, presents itself as a sigh of relief, saving us from a tyrannical and unjust predecessor. Applying the visual cues of experimental and documentary filmmaking, this explosive work offers a speculative, feminist polemic set in a potential future that mirrors both the present in which it was made and ours. And while the framework of a cultural object being “timely” can easily fall into anemic and ahistorical platitudes, Lizzie Borden’s fevered 1983 film is absolutely one we should be watching right now.

Made with a low budget of $40,000 over the course of five “Reagan Revolution” years, Born in Flames resonates with our current moment precisely because it was responding to its own: a counter-revolutionary and conservative miasma marked by the racist War on Drugs, astronomically bloated FBI and military budgets, and virulent anti-communism. The thing that weds the film’s political setting to our own is failed aspiration. It’s what births the Women’s Army, a militant group led by Adelaide Norris (Jean Satterfield), a queer Black woman determined to infuse the moribund state with the revolutionary spirit it has stifled instead of sustained.

Along with the Women’s Army, the film focuses on two feminist radio stations: Phoenix Radio, hosted by a Black woman named Honey whose aptly honey-toned segments encourage collective mobilization against the new regime’s continued oppressions, and Radio Ragazza, hosted by Isabel (Adele Bertei), a white punk ever-bathed in red light, whose subversive sermons (and regrettable attempts at rapping) punctuate the film’s staccato narrative. Honey insists that music has a role in liberation, and Isabel proclaims it time to “re-design the mindscape of an alienated culture”; both characters assert the necessary participation of cultural production in the ongoing task of organizing toward freedom.

Aside from the the dissident radio programs, Born in Flames is marked by a dizzying surplus of diegetic media: TV screens fill the frame with news broadcasts, talk shows, and documentary clips. The news broadcasts criminalize the Women’s Army, framing their communal actions — child care, political education, organizing strikes — as the “selfish, self-interested” work of “extremists” and “vigilantes.” An FBI surveillance subplot contributes a deluge of photos, background files, diagrams, and videos. Such demonizing has often been the flip side of the perhaps even more damaging tactic of softening and enfeebling the legacies of Black revolutionaries in the United States.

With Born in Flames, Borden was following up on her 1976 debut, Regrouping, which was also an experimental documentary about a women’s collective. She sought to overcome the strictures of mainstream filmmaking by aligning the film’s political position and the labor of its production. A movement elder, Zella Wylie, is played by the real-life lawyer and activist Flo Kennedy, who organized, protested, and offered legal representation to such clients as the Black Panthers and the estates of Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker, all while wearing her signature cowboy hat and pink sunglasses. She improvised many of her lines; Borden avoided using the script as a tyrannical document, instead recruiting nonactors into a collaborative and flexible process in which they shared authority over the film’s creation.

Eschewing more traditional forms of narrative organization, Born in Flames uses the incantatory repetition of the punk band Red Crayola’s song of the same name as a key structuring element, a working-class anthem that strings together the film’s fragmented but expansive consideration of “women’s labor.” (The song backgrounds an especially clever montage, a sequence of close-ups of women’s hands flashing through the actions of feeding a baby, performing secretarial work, packaging raw chicken in a factory, putting a condom on a penis, and cutting hair. Borden treats women’s labor — particularly that which might be dismissed as mundane — with deft humor and dignity.) It’s a wild ride, a chaotic hypnosis, but the film is by no means illegible. Even with its splintered tempo, it is scaffolded with political acuity, tracing an arc of demystification and emancipatory radicalization.

Initially offered as a counterpoint to the militancy of the Women’s Army is another small group: three white woman editors (one played by a young Kathryn Bigelow) of The Socialist Youth Review, a publication bound to the state’s party line. They act as a shorthand for Establishment, middle-class white feminism, their myopia and vague universalism leading them to disregard the Women’s Army and refuse to see how the group is in fact doing what the film’s Social Democracy has failed to do. It is only after the supposed jailhouse suicide of Adelaide Norris, arrested after returning from Algeria to build international solidarity, is revealed to be a political assassination by federal agents that the editorial trio finally catch up.

The failure of this fictional Social Democracy is its insistence on a tidy narrative of progress — the revolutionary women instead agitate for the ruptures and discontinuities necessary to upend enduring systems. As the mobilizations of the Women’s Army escalate, the panicked government tries to pacify them with a Wages for Housework policy; too little, too late. Following what looks like documentary footage of Radio Phoenix and Radio Ragazza in rubble and ruins — destroyed in an unspecified backlash against “women extremists” — the editors of The Socialist Youth Review, now in alliance with the militant groups, stage a pirated interruption of a news broadcast to declare that their stagnant government “denies the very basis of true socialism, which is constant struggle and change.”

Born in Flames has occasionally been classified as science-fiction, dystopian even, putting the film in an ill-fitting box where the expectations of technology-fueled advancement are concerned. It does, however, inhabit the tradition of imagining potential futures as a way of speaking to an evolving present; it is carried by a utopian current, channeled through the intransigent demand to make an inventive leap into reforming the world. The film closes with the setting off of an explosion atop one of the towers of the World Trade Center. And while that scene cannot escape the valence brought to it by the two decades that succeeded the film, it can still be read as a strategic undermining of the machinery of the government’s media monopoly — the target is a transmitter.

What the Women’s Army refuses to abandon is a living and dynamic ethos that rejects the torpor of mainstream politics; they believe that a measure of destruction is necessary for real change to arise. We might consider that this is the spirit of abolition — destroying unjust systems in order to build otherwise, to demand more than cosmetic changes and minor reforms. With its flat calls for unearned unity, the Biden administration is yet demonstrating glaring continuities with its predecessor: the refusal to end America’s forever wars, the racial COVID-19 vaccination gap, slow-walking desperately needed stimulus checks — all of this points to a rhetoric of empty liberal progressivism. With Borden’s work is thoughtful agitprop born of an unfortunately enduring urgency, an electrifying sonic and visual collage that reminds us that continuously fanning the flames of revolution is what keeps them alive.

Born in Flames is available to watch on Prime Video, Kanopy, Ovid, and The Criterion Channel.

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The Still-Burning Fire of Born in Flames