By Dante Lamb
Born in Flames (1983) is a fictional documentary-esque film that tackles topics of race, class, and discrimination based on sex and sexuality. The director, Lizzie Borden, cites French New Wave filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard for the style of this film, only her second. With a “naive” approach to film production, the film paints a grassroots struggle against an oppressive and dangerous government. The film pictures an alternate United States, specifically New York, ten years after the “social-democratic war of liberation.” This revolution put in place a government that continues the history of silencing minorities. The film features prominent activists and artists such as Florynce Lloyd, Pat Murphy, and Kathryn Bigelow, director of Point Break (1991) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012).
Not only does the film represent activists of the time, it also includes music of revolution by “Red Krayola” and “Ibis.” The soundtrack is a war cry against the injustices towards women and minorities who are oppressed by white individuals and government. In 2016 the film was remastered and resides in the Anthology Film Archives in New York City. This film, while made in 1983, tackles relevant and daunting challenges that are still undertaken today, often with little success. While Born in Flames has its shortcomings, it is an important film that highlights how far we have yet to go if we wish to escape these flames that still burn and maim.
Unfortunately, the experience of viewing the film on Metrograph’s virtual cinema platform was conflicting. On one hand, the restoration of the film allowed for a crisp and clean viewing experience. The introduction by Lizzie Borden herself offered insight to the production and reasoning behind the film. It was a wonderful preview to watching the film as it allowed some explanation of what was to come. She answers the premise of “what do we do with women?” as a generalized question regarding the second wave of feminism. However, beyond bringing the film to the home screen, Metrograph did not provide me any outlet for communal outreach. The film made me want to hear the experiences and realities of women who could relate to the film. While Metrograph is a wonderful resource in terms of watching the film and allowing Borden to revisit why she made the film, it does not provide a place for the teachings of the film to be discussed. The film demonstrates violence and outbursts and retaliation and, without proper discussion, I do feel the film could incentivize unnecessary violence. While Metrograph did a wonderful thing by providing a space to watch this film, the screening lacked substance when it comes to housing a community for understanding the film outside of Borden’s introduction.
That said, the film itself does an incredibly good job of creating a believable afro-futuristic documentary while retaining and explaining the events of the time. The oppressive and extremely prejudiced government presented in the film parallels today’s unfair welfare and social systems in the U.S.
The topic of the film, however, can be blurry. At its core we begin the film with two diametrically opposed radio groups who tell their audience differing ways of leveling the playing field. I would say the true film begins with the death of Adelaide Norris, played by Jean Satterfield. The first half of the film is confusing and feels disjointed as we are thrust into this new America. By focusing on two “protagonists,” the traditional film viewer in me wants to “pick a side.” I felt my judgment was skewed as I watched the film, as it felt like I should pick a tactic to deal with oppression. The story just didn’t seem to have any footholds until Adelaide’s death.
After Adelaide’s death, we begin to see a unification of these women and their “right to violence.” The one consistent voice throughout the film speaks on intersectionality, a topic that Kimberlé Crenshaw explains in her pioneering essay, “Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.” This theory helps to explain that, even though the women depicted in the film are of vastly different races, sexualities, and backgrounds, they are unified under the same umbrella of oppression. The film paints the women’s different intersectional identities and experiences and highlights them equally as they are disparaged by the ruling class throughout the film.
While the story is somewhat lackluster considering the focus and purpose of the film, there are plenty of individual snippets that make up for this. The documentary-style editing allows for plenty of one-liners from characters that defined the movement as well as a mantra to put forth a fight. The film was evidently low budget, but this added to the grassroots reality of these types of social movements. The lack of funding reminded me of the “CLIT” scene from The Watermelon Woman (Cheryl Dunye, 1996). As funny as these scenes are, the reality is this: to form any grassroots movement is incredibly difficult. This returns us to my earlier criticism of the film’s depiction of the unnecessary competition among different groups tackling the same issue.
The issue of this film did not originate from the representation of differing opinion, but it seemed to pit second wave feminists against each other. As Borden herself states in the introduction, it was a question of removing “feminism” and “womanism” from the equation entirely. Rather, the struggle should be about focusing on the unified goals of the respective groups with their overlap. In the latter half of the film, it seems the two groups join the “Women’s Army” as if it were the only option. I wish more of the tactics of the differing groups were resolved instead of a general agreement being reached.
I enjoyed the film once I got past my initial confusion of some of the core events. It offered plausible and relevant concerns that are disturbingly relevant to today. It made the film difficult to watch, as it’s hard to tell if it was ahead of its time or if we simply haven’t progressed.
The film uses a host of shots throughout its run-time, all with a goal of placing us in an alternate timeline watching a documentary of past events. This layout allows for imprecise shots that seem “found,” removing a focus on mise-en-scene and placing the weight entirely on its content. One aspect of the film that went over my head was the allusion to “women’s work.” According to Craige Willse and Dean Spade, this repetitive montage of shots represented a “class” of work that was worthy only of women. The issue with this argument is there seems to be a little too much consensus. Shots of radio hosts looking directly into a camera, nondescript shots of women’s army meetings, and brief montages of violence all coalesce into a film form that negates a need for structure. The impact of the film is how down to earth it remains for its duration. No aspect of the film is farfetched; even today we see acts of violence in the face of oppression because of necessity.
The film’s greatest accomplishment is the naivety that Borden harnesses throughout the film. This guerilla style of filming represents an always-present watchdog outside of the media. As people living under a government, it is our simultaneous right to be governed and break the rules of governing we see as unfit. The quality of the film was a concession by the director but it represents the importance of the actions of the oppressed, doing whatever it takes to be heard.
Another important formal aspect of the film was the soundtrack. Red Krayola’s song “Born in Flames,” the apparent namesake of the film, acts as a call to arms against the current regime. It’s repetition throughout various scenes acts as a symbolic unification–a flag, if you will–that unites the ideologies of various oppressed groups and combines them into a unified will against all that is unjust.
The oppression of the film isn’t singular but rather encompassing of all minorities. The film highlights sexism, especially misogyny, racial profiling, and the condemnation of same-gender relationships involving women. This multifaceted hatred acts as another tool for unification of the oppressed.
Borden, Lizzie. Born In Flames. Performances by Adele Bertei, Floryne Kennedy, and Kathryn Bigelow, First Run Features, 1983. Accessed Metrograph, https://metrograph.com/.
Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review, vol. 43, no. 6, pp. 1241–1241, 1991, https://ltu.on.worldcat.org/search/detail/5246341495?queryString=mapping%20the%20margins%20crenshaw&clusterResults=true&stickyFacetsChecked=true&baseScope=&groupVariantRecords=false.
Willse, Craig, Spade, Dean. “We are Born in Flames.” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory, vol. 23, no. 1, pp. 1-5, 2013, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/263211449_We_are_Born_in_Flames.
One thought on “Film in Review: ‘Born in Flames’ (Lizzie Borden, 1983) isn’t a film of yesterday”
I really enjoyed reading this film analysis. Plus that was a really great photo that you added on. I feel like the photo really added a lot of significance to your topic. I happen to even watch the film myself and I really was an amazing film to watch especially when it comes to the issues within the LGBTQ+ community. Really great work with the cinematography and with the lgbtq+ standard issues. I think you did a really great comparison between the topics and the issues. The flow of the film review was very smooth and very easy to read too! Outstanding work my friend, really solid analysis!