Film Review: Born in Flames

The U.S. premiere of the newly restored 'Born in Flames' gives us all an opportunity to reassess this indie classic.
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Bold and daring in 1983, and nearly as radical in 2016, Born in Flames broke new ground in the world of feminist filmmaking—and beyond. Critics and audiences would be well advised to see where at least some of today's more envelope-pushing ideas originated.

In what was only her second feature, writer-director Lizzie Borden crafted a futuristic storyline set in New York City about two opposing underground DJs, Honey (Honey), a soft-spoken black announcer who runs the Phoenix Radio Station, and the angrier, white Isabel (Adele Bertei), who runs Radio Ragazza. When a fellow activist, Adelaide Norris (Jean Satterfield), is arrested and dies in police custody, a respected elder, Zella (Flo Kennedy), calls for swift retaliation. Initially, neither Honey nor Isabel wants to join Zella’s Women’s Army, but after both of their radio stations are burned down they combine forces and unite with the Army.

Meanwhile, an obnoxious FBI agent (Ron Vawter) spies on the women and three journalists (Becky Johnston, Pat Murphy, and Kathryn Bigelow, the future Oscar-winning director) cover their activities, which include interrupting the U.S. President’s well-meaning but banal speech about pay equity. Finally, the Women’s Army stages a violent event that gets everyone’s attention.

Given how rightward American politics has drifted since the Reagan era, when the film was made, the greatest irony of Born in Flames is that the kindly but ineffectual President (played by Walter Scheuer) espouses much of the same rhetoric as the current Democratic-Socialist candidate for president, Bernie Sanders. Borden reframes today’s debate by positing that even Sanders’ left-wing policies would be insufficient and too conservative to make a difference in the lives of women, who are shown to be ignored, insulted or outright abused in the fictionalized Socialist society of the narrative. Another grimmer irony concerns the literally explosive finale—an act that eerily foreshadows the events of 9/11, though Borden pre-emptively questions whether terrorism to some is revolution to others.

Restoring a film designed to be “in-your-face” gritty may seem counterproductive, but New York City’s Anthology Film Archives has done an admirable service preserving the fading details of Borden's admittedly raw mise-en-scène. (Born in Flames was shot over several years on a shoestring budget and the original negative is apparently lost.) Polished or not, the film means to break down the fourth wall in the best Brechtian sense. Not only do the characters speak directly to the viewer, but the clash of perspectives and genres—sci-fi, documentary, parody, et al.—is deliberately jarring.

For those audiences more accustomed to a Hollywood aesthetic, though, Born in Flames will be more than off-putting; there are genuine flaws, even in the context of an original independent film. The amateurism of the acting accentuates the “meta” quality, but it is so poor at times it also distracts from what the characters are saying about sexism, racism, homophobia, etc. (The sound quality doesn’t help, either.) Less disruptive but just as annoying, Red Crayola’s title song, though catchy, gets much too much play throughout the 90-minute running time.

But these are minor quibbles. Born in Flames deserves its legendary status and still has the power to challenge, confront, and capture the imagination of its audience.