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Filmmaker Lizzie Borden’s 1983 film, Born in Flames, imagines the United States ten years after a “Social Labor Party” revolution. An activist group called the Women’s Army is fighting to bring equality for everyone the revolution left behind. The film is a passionate portrayal of intersectionality and injustice within a fictional social world that looks a lot like our own. (AEL: 4/5)
Review by FF2 Contributing Editor Amelie Lasker
At first, the world Lizzie Borden constructed in Born in Flames feels like a utopia. It’s the tenth anniversary of the fictional, peaceful War of Liberation when the “Social Labor Party” successfully revolutionized US politics and empowered workers. Two underground feminist radio hosts describe the situation to us: “Isabel” (Adele Bertei) and “Honey” (played by an actress who goes by the same single name). It’s summertime, and there’s music and dancing and celebration.
The streets of this utopian New York City appear to be ruled by nonviolent women protectors: when some men attack a woman on a sidewalk, a mass of women on bikes whiz by blowing whistles and scare the attackers off; when a man harasses a woman on the subway, a pair of nearby Women’s Army members who happen to be watching, approach and intimidate him until he leaves.
But soon, we find out that these protectors are not part of the formal structures of the revolution set up ten years ago. They’re an emerging independent group called the Women’s Army; they’re calling out the social problems along the lines of race, class, gender, and sexuality that remain even after the revolution claimed to bring justice for all.
Why are people so afraid of the Women’s Army? Some are afraid they’re counterrevolutionaries. Local politicians wonder if they’re a terrorist group. Young women journalists for the revolutionary Socialist Youth Review worry that “crying sexism whenever you don’t get a job you want” threatens to divide the revolutionary cause and hurt the integrity of feminist action.
Born in Flames is a story told largely through these media clashes. Journalists and the radio hosts narrate and comment on the action, expressing wariness or support of the Women’s Army’s work. Their close involvement draws attention to the ways in which the news influences how we feel about what’s happening and when we are driven to action, for better or for worse.
The rest of the film’s ensemble cast consists of Women’s Army leaders “Adelaide Norris” (Jean Satterfield) and “Hillary Hurst” (played by an actress of the same name). Adelaide’s manager is pressured to fire her by local government officials because they see her activism as a threat. This act impassions Adelaide, and she becomes a Black, queer icon of a movement driven by injustices along the lines of social identity. Her leadership mirrors a real historical context of Black, queer women who led social movements; the film’s constructed political world looks more and more like the real one.
And then there’s “Zella” (Florynce Kennedy), Adelaide’s older neighbor, who was once an activist but has now grown tired. Zella’s cynicism also gives her productive wisdom, and her theories push Adelaide to think critically about the Women’s Army’s methods and goals. “We have a right to violence,” Zella tells Adelaide. “It’s like the right to pee: you gotta have the right place, the right time, the right situation.”
All these perspectives on revolution and post-revolution political discourse come together, asking nuanced questions that still preoccupy us in the current decade: how can we make feminism inclusive? And how can we celebrate our victories while acknowledging there’s more work to be done?
There was no widely used word for “intersectionality” until Kimberlé Crenshaw coined it in 1989. But I believe that’s the term Lizzie Borden was looking for. I’m inspired by how a movie made in 1983 about a fictional society could ask such closely relevant questions about who we are when we say we’re progressives and who we want to be.
© Amelie Lasker (11/3/20) FF2 Media
Featured Photo: Florynce Kennedy as “Zella” and Jean Satterfield as “Adelaide.”
Middle Photo: Adele Bertei as “Isabelle.”
Bottom Photo: Honey as “Honey.”
Photo Credits: First Run Features
Q: Does Born in Flames pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?
This film has an ensemble cast of women, with sporadic (mostly unnamed) man political leaders speculating apprehensively about the women’s political actions.