Everything you’ve heard is true. Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames is, in many ways, a really terrible movie. Performances by the mostly amateur cast are stiff and awkward, the editing is clumsy, the script consists entirely of polemic and exposition, and the soundtrack ranges from being simply unlistenable to becoming a source of torment of the kind expressly prohibited by the Geneva Convention. Some of the film’s flaws can be excused as being the result of its ultra-low budget, but others are inherent in its project, which is almost entirely political and only incidentally artistic.
That said, the film earns its place in cinema history specifically because of its political aims. Decades after it was made, it still looks daring, expressing a gonzo vision of feminist rebellion that few women or men today would or could imagine. (Its closest present-day cousin in this regard is probably George Miller’s excellent Mad Max: Fury Road.) Perhaps the failure of more present-day filmmakers to imagine something as radical as Born in Flames should cause us concern. After all, the social problems that inspired the film and which it vigorously criticizes have changed little since it was made more than three decades ago. Rape is still epidemic; women still suffer a significant wage gap and workplace discrimination; street harassment persists; sex work is still dangerous; the domestic labor that still falls disproportionately on women is still devalued and uncompensated. The world for too many women—even American women—is still a grim place. And so the film’s near-future dystopia still resonates.
At the present political moment, as we are embroiled in primaries in which democratic socialist Bernie Sanders has made an unexpectedly vigorous showing, the film takes on an additional relevance in its consideration of democratic socialism as a potential pathway to a more equitable society. Perhaps surprisingly, the film votes no on this option. It opens in a future America that underwent a democratic socialist revolution ten years prior, and the results have not benefited women or the LGBT community. Governmental proposals like wages for housework are viewed as a sop to placate an angry “Women’s Army” who seek to upend patriarchy. No structural change at the state level, according to the army and the film itself, will help women as long as the patriarchy that undergirds that state is allowed to stand. (Those who today see merit in this view might point with some vindication to the recent revelation that none of the ten highest-paid staffers in Bernie Sanders’ campaign are women.) It may be a weakness that the film is unable to imagine the sort of democratic socialism that we now see in Scandinavian nations, which has very effectively begun to address gender inequality as part of its efforts toward social equality in general; the entire order must be disrupted, the film says, and an unspecified something-or-other take its place. (Matriarchy? Full gender equality? Borden doesn’t say, and by the end of this interesting mess of a film, we are left only to scratch our heads and wonder.)
Those who enjoy spotting when-they-were-young film personalities and cultural figures will have some fun with Born in Flames. Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow has a role as a reluctant revolutionary, Eric Bogosian utters one brief but memorable line, and the great Flo Kennedy—actor, activist, attorney—is a charismatic presence and provides the film’s few flashes of warmth and humor. Counterbalancing these moments, however, is cinema’s single most embarrassing instance of white-lady rap ever, along with multiple hair-and-wardrobe choices that inspire real dismay. More seriously unsettling is the film’s closing shot: a transmitter on top of one of the World Trade Center towers being blown up. Borden probably wanted this last shot to be bracing and cautionary, but now it just looks terribly sad.
What stays with me as a viewer, however, are the radical moments that prompt me to wonder why nothing quite like them has shown up in American film since. Born in Flames takes seriously the notion that patriarchy could actually be overthrown—not just chipped away at over time, but eliminated deliberately, quickly, and completely. It shows us a gang of women on bicycles rolling up on a would-be rapist and neutralizing the threat he presents. It shows us women creating underground radio broadcasts urging organized action to dismantle patriarchy. It shows us women taking up arms to defend themselves in a tightly disciplined Women’s Army. None of this is depicted as in any way outrageous—or even all that implausible. A film like this today would have to cluck its tongue at the excesses committed by the women it depicts, but Born in Flames steadfastly refuses to soften its vision in this way. It paints its protagonists as heroes, driven to violent action as a last recourse, but a recourse that is entirely justifiable within the world of the film (which, it bears noting, is an only slightly exaggerated version of our world). Much of the critical venom directed at this film over the years is, I suspect, actually born of discomfort with the film’s uncompromising stance, rather than a justifiable irritation with its numerous artistic flaws. I would love to see more filmmakers make radical feminist movies, however flawed they might or might not be, with the same force of conviction as this one.
Born in Flames plays at Scarecrow Video on Wednesday, March 23.