Directed by Lizzie Borden
Reviewed by Seren Sensei
Imagine a world where a seemingly all-powerful political party has seized control of America, upending our democratic system of checks and balances. A malevolent dictator slowly strips the rights away from underserved and marginalized groups, particularly women and people of color, under the guise of providing “stability” for the nation as a whole. And radical protest groups led primarily by Black women march through the streets, broadcast over the radio waves, and find themselves harassed, wrongfully detained, and even murdered by police.
The plot of Born In Flames, a 1983 political science fiction mockumentary by director Lizzie Borden, is at once timely, retrospective and eerily prophetic. It follows three activist groups as they attempt to fight against a socialist government that has been in power for a decade. One group, the Women’s Army, is led by a Black lesbian named Adelaide Norris (played by Jean Satterfield); another, Phoenix Radio, is led by a Black radio personality named Honey (played by the actress of the same name); and Radio Ragazza, the more radical group, is led by a white lesbian named Isabel (played by Adele Bertai). Phoenix Radio is more civic-minded, preaching non-violence and disobedient protest, while the more aggressively hostile organization, Radio Ragazza, despairs that the time for civil disobedience has come and gone. The Women’s Army, the largest of the three, rests somewhere in the middle, with Honey and Adelaide frequently working together to actively recruit “regular” women on the street for protests and organization meetings, encouraging them to stick together and look out for one another in the face of danger more than anything else.
The WA pickets government offices and police stations that refuse to acknowledge the abuse of women, along with news stations that broadcast destructive and sexist messages from the male-only government (“Work outside of the home? Women should just get paid for housework!”). When a woman is attacked by would-be rapists on the streets of New York City, a crew of WA members appear on bicycles, blaring whistles to chase the men away, and a similar scene occurs when a man attempts to grope and harass a woman on a crowded subway car. Although leader Adelaide does not encourage violence and initially attempts to keep her group on the right side of the law, the socialist government, which has bumped women and racial minorities to the bottom of lists for jobs and government assistance, calls their actions treasonous and attacks them in the media.
As tensions escalate and clashes with the police became more violent, her mentor, Zella Wylie – played by real life lawyer and activist Flo Kennedy – advises Adelaide to learn techniques of self-defense from co-activists in the Sahara. When Adelaide travels abroad to collaborate with international women’s groups, she is illegally detained by the police upon re-entry and is eventually found dead in her cell, prompting the Women’s Army, Phoenix Radio, and Radio Ragazza to join forces. Their numbers substantially larger as single group, now called Phoenix Ragazza Radio, they launch increasingly radical actions that culminate in a violent takeover of a broadcast station and several acts of domestic terrorism.
Borden uses the central figure of Adelaide as a cornerstone of the film. Constantly surrounded by a flurry of activity from women of all races (the Women’s Army is a mixed race group, Radio Ragazza is primarily white, and Phoenix Radio is primarily Black), Adelaide bridges the narrative by way of being a soft-spoken everywoman, so to speak. She is a construction worker largely doing the right thing, knowing that if she doesn’t few others will. Her leadership is illuminated via scenes of her discussing activism with a core inner circle made up of other Black women, many of whom are not activists; some, like Wylie, are supportive, while others question her commitment to a cause that so often asks Black women to pick gender or race against all else (in one scene, a close Black friend openly tells her what she’s doing is “white woman shit”).
The film earnestly explores questions of race, gender, class, sexuality and power, focusing primarily on what it means to be not only a woman activist under an oppressively sexist regime, but also a queer Black woman activist in a country that disdains gender not male and race not white. More pointedly, the way gender discrimination is ignored within marginalized racial groups is examined through Adelaide’s interactions with the primarily straight Black and Latino men at her construction site: although they treat her with a sense of camaraderie due to the fact that she is a masculine lesbian, when Adelaide, the lone woman on the job, is fired in clear retaliation against her political activism, her fellow workers lament the injustice of the firing but ultimately do not stand up for her. Only later when Black men at the site are similarly fired do the male construction workers of all races begin to protest before engaging in outright rioting against the police.
Isabel and Adelaide are juxtaposed against each other as almost polar opposites, as the leader of Radio Ragazza initially refuses Adelaide’s request to join forces with the Women’s Army and Phoenix Radio because she believes they’re too “soft.” There is an unspoken question of whether Isabel would be as willing to be radical, and as hypercritical of Honey and Adelaide, if she did not already have the privilege of whiteness on her side. And on the flip side, would Adelaide in particular be as soft-spoken if she weren’t already viewed by society as hard and masculine — despite her reserved and soft-spoken nature — by the very fact she is a construction-working, brown-skinned Black lesbian?
A socialist newspaper managed and edited by three white women, including a young Katheryn Bigelow, serves as stark counterpoint to the protest work being waged by the women on the streets. Initially content with writing articles in favor of the socialist regime, despite it’s oppression of women in the name of fair journalism, the editors by film’s end revolt against their publisher and begin to print stories condemning both their government and party.
As fascism rises in the present-day United States, largely aided by a mainstream media and the rise of “fake news” slanted along partisan lines, this side storyline in the film is another that feels incredibly prescient. (The editors are also representative of the ways that whiteness works as a form of privilege, because while the government discriminates against them as women, their whiteness still allows them a certain position of power in the media.)
Borden, on a shoestring budget, filmed Born in Flames over a period a five years. She adopted guerilla techniques and filmed on real street corners and subway cars that capture the rot and grit of New York City just prior to its late-century resurgence. To that end, the film acts as an historic record of a city that still had a pulse. Adelaide is but one character, a central one, but we see women of the various groups and ethnicities working, having sex, listening to music, talking, hanging out in their apartments — painting a picture of their lives outside of activism and beautifully illustrating that revolutions are made not of deified, larger-than-life figures, but mere mortals like you and me. It is another important lesson for contemporary times, when true and legendary leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. have been reduced to little more than Disney-esque hero caricatures in popular culture, while “ordinary people” wonder what they can do to fight against the slow dismantling of their rights. It is a reminder that we all have power, be it speaking out and standing up against a man groping a woman in the seat next to you, utilizing your privilege to amplify marginalized voices, or even the simple, voluntary act of handing out flyers for Planned Parenthood. Banding together, speaking up and recognizing the intersectionality of race, gender, class, sexuality, and able-bodiedness are lessons in Born In Flames that we should never forget.
Seren Sensei (@seren_sensei) is an activist, writer, cultural critic and new media maker. Focusing on finding the bonds between race, politics, and pop culture, she creates race-based video content and also released her first book, entitled So, About That… A Year of Contemporary Essays on Race and Pop Culture, in 2015. She was a 2016-2017 fellow for at land’s edge, an art and activism fellowship program in Los Angeles, and her work has been exhibited in the art space human resources la as well as the Vincent Price Art Museum.