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Born in Flames

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Born in Flames
Directed byLizzie Borden
Written byEd Bowes
Lizzie Borden (uncredited)
Produced byLizzie Borden
  • Ed Bowes
  • Al Santana Michael Oblowitz
  • Lizzie Borden
Edited byLizzie Borden
Music byIbis
Red Krayola
Distributed byFirst Run Features
Release date
  • February 20, 1983 (1983-02-20)
Running time
90 minutes
CountryUnited States

Born in Flames is a 1983 American dystopian docufiction drama film directed, produced and co-written by radical intersectional feminist Lizzie Borden that explores racism, classism, sexism and heterosexism in an alternate socialist democratic United States.[1] The title comes from the song "Born in Flames" written by a member of Art & Language, Mayo Thompson of the band Red Krayola.[2]


The plot concerns two feminist groups in New York City, each voicing their concerns to the public by pirate radio. One group, led by an outspoken white lesbian, Isabel, operates Radio Ragazza. The other group, led by a soft-spoken African-American, Honey, operates Phoenix Radio. The local community is stimulated into action after a world-traveling political activist, Adelaide Norris, is arrested upon arriving at a New York City airport, and suspiciously dies while in police custody. Simultaneously, a Women's Army led by Hilary Hurst and advised by Zella is taking direct action in the city. Initially, both Honey and Isabel refuse to join. This group, along with Norris and the radio stations, are under investigation by a callous FBI agent. Their progress is tracked by three editors for a socialist newspaper, whose persistent and opinionated journalism ultimately gets them fired.

The story involves several different women coming from different perspectives and attempts to show several examples of how sexism plays out on the street and how it can be combatted. In an example scene, two men attack a woman on the street, forcing her to the ground. Before they can cause further harm, dozens of women on bicycles with whistles come to chase the men away and offer the woman support. The movie shows women, despite their various differences, organizing in meetings, doing radio shows, creating art, wheatpasting, putting a condom on a penis, wrapping raw chicken at a processing plant, etc. The film portrays a world rife with violence against women, high female unemployment, and government oppression. The women in the film start to come together to make a bigger impact, by means that some would call terrorism.

Ultimately, after both radio stations are suspiciously burned down, Honey and Isabel team up and broadcast Phoenix Ragazza Radio from stolen U-Haul vans. They also join the Women's Army, which sends a group of terrorists to interrupt a broadcast of the president of the United States proposing that women be paid to do housework. The film ends with the women taking one more action to bomb the antenna on top of the World Trade Center to hinder further destructive messages from the mainstream.


Civil rights activist Florynce Kennedy, and former star athlete, Jean Satterfield appear in the film. This film also marks the first screen appearance of Eric Bogosian;[3] he plays a technician at a TV station who is forced at gunpoint to run a videotape on the network feed. The movie also features a rare acting appearance by Academy Award-winning film director Kathryn Bigelow.[1] Story contributor Ed Bowes portrays the head of the socialist newspaper that ultimately fires the female journalists.


In 1983, the film won the Reader Jury prize at the Berlin International Film Festival[4] and the Grand Prix at the Créteil International Women's Film Festival.[5]

Reception and legacy[edit]

Rotten Tomatoes reports an 88% approval rating based on 32 reviews, with an average rating of 6.8/10.[6]

Variety wrote that it has "all the advantages and the disadvantages of a home movie".[7] The Guardian in 2021 described the film as a zero-budget underground film with all the hallmarks of guerilla filmmaking, writing that "Borden is filming on the real New York streets, also using real news footage of real demos and real police violence" and that the "anarchic spirit of agitprop pulses from this scrappy, smart, subversive film." In an interview, Borden herself said, "I could only shoot once a month, when I had $200,...I would gather everyone in this old Lincoln Continental I kept parked in front of my loft, go somewhere and shoot, and then I'd spend the interim just editing."

Janet Maslin of The New York Times wrote "Only those who already share Miss Borden's ideas are apt to find her film persuasive."[1] Marjorie Baumgarten of The Austin Chronicle wrote "Beautifully made, courageously edited, and swift-moving, this challenging, provocative film is a work that is both humanist and revolutionary."[8] Frances Dickinson of Time Out London wrote that Borden "[handles] her story with audacity and make[s] even the driest argument crackle with humour, while the more poignant moments burn with a fierce white heat."[9] TV Guide rated it 2/4 stars and wrote "This feminist film wins laurels for close attention to detail in a radical filmmaking effort."[10] Greg Baise of the Metro Times called it "an early '80s landmark of indie and queer cinema".[11] In 2022, the film was ranked joint 243rd in Sight & Sound's Greatest Films of All Time poll, tied for the distinction along with 21 other films, including A Clockwork Orange, Annie Hall, and Possession.[12]


  • The movie refers to many feminist movements and tools, including black feminism, white feminism, consciousness raising, independent radio, and police brutality.
  • There is also a reference to wages for housework, a feminist social movement from the seventies addressing women's reproductive labor, in a scene in which the president announces on TV that “For the first time in our history we’ll provide women with wages for housework”, just before a group of women hijack the broadcast to pass a militant message. This moment in the film highlights political antagonisms, between white hetero-normative feminism and anti-racist and anti-capitalist feminism.[13]
  • The movie refers to US policies like the workfare programme and the Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act of 1976, which discriminate single and queer women (news scene where the journalist announces that ‘male heads of families’ would get jobs).[13]
  • Media historian Lucas Hilderbrand made a parallel with A Black Feminist Statement, from the Combahee River Collective (1977), a Black feminist lesbian organization.[14]
  • The film includes the Red Krayola song "Born In Flames", released as a single in 1980,[15] as well as the songs "I’ll Take You There" by the African-American gospel, R&B, and soul group The Staple Singers, "Strange Fruit" by Billie Holiday, "Voodoo Child" by Jimi Hendrix and "New Town" by the British female punk rock group The Slits.
  • The casting of the movie stages civil rights lawyer and activist Florynce Kennedy, Adele Bertei from the bands The Bloods and The Contortions, film director Kathryn Bigelow, and actors Ron Vawter and Eric Bogosian.


The film is discussed in Christina Lane's book Feminist Hollywood: From "Born in Flames" to "Point Break".[16]

A “graphic translation” of the movie made by artist Kaisa Lassinaro, which contains an interview of Lizzie Borden, was published by Occasional Papers in 2011.[17] The book is a collage composition made of screencaps with a selection of dialogues from the movie.

In 2013, a dossier on the film was published as a special issue of Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory.[18] With an introduction from Craig Willse and Dean Spade, the dossier includes a number of essays that address race, queerness, intersectionality, radicalism, violence, and feminism in the film.

The film has experienced something of a renaissance after the 35mm restoration print premiered in 2016 at the Anthology Film Archives.[19] followed by promotion by the Criterion Channel and a re-release that took Borden to screenings around the world.[20] Richard Brody of The New Yorker wrote "the free, ardent, spontaneous creativity of Born in Flames emerges as an indispensable mode of radical change—one that many contemporary filmmakers with political intentions have yet to assimilate."[21] He also wrote "Borden's exhilarating collage-like story stages news reports, documentary sequences, and surveillance footage alongside tough action scenes and musical numbers; her violent vision is both ideologically complex and chilling."[21] Melissa Anderson of The Village Voice wrote "this unruly, unclassifiable film — perhaps the sole entry in the hybrid genre of radical-lesbian-feminist sci-fi vérité — premiered two years into the Reagan regime, but its fury proves as bracing today as it was back when this country began its inexorable shift to the right."[22] Borden was invited to show the new 35mm print in Brussels, Barcelona, Madrid, San Sebastián, Milan, Toronto, the Edinburgh Film Festival, London Film Festival, along with screenings in Detroit, Rochester, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.[19]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Maslin, Janet (November 10, 1983). "Film: 'Born in Flames' Radical feminist ideas". The New York Times. Retrieved February 27, 2022.
  2. ^ Baise, Greg (March 1, 2017). "Lizzie Borden talks about her scrappy, feminist magnum opus, 'Born in Flames'". Detroit Metro Times. Retrieved August 21, 2017.
  3. ^ "Eric Bogosian Biography". Film Reference. Retrieved May 13, 2009.
  4. ^ "Born in Flames (1983) Awards & Festivals". MUBI. Retrieved December 31, 2022.
  5. ^ "Lizzie Borden". Equality Archive. November 3, 2015. Retrieved December 31, 2022.
  6. ^ "Born in Flames (1983)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Retrieved August 5, 2023.
  7. ^ "Review: 'Born in Flames'". Variety. December 31, 1982. Retrieved April 11, 2015.
  8. ^ Baumgarten, Marjorie (June 20, 2001). "Born in Flames". The Austin Chronicle. Retrieved April 11, 2015.
  9. ^ Dickinson, Frances (September 10, 2012). "Born in Flames". Time Out London. Retrieved April 11, 2015.
  10. ^ "Born In Flames". TV Guide. Retrieved April 11, 2015.
  11. ^ Baise, Greg (June 16, 2010). "Born in Flames". Metro Times. Retrieved April 11, 2015.
  12. ^ "Born in Flames (1983)". BFI. Retrieved February 11, 2023.
  13. ^ a b Capper, Beth (2017). "Domestic Unrest". Third Text. 31 (1): 97–116. doi:10.1080/09528822.2017.1366410. S2CID 149187896.
  14. ^ Hilderbrand, Lucas (2013). "In the Heat of the Moment: Notes on the past, present, and future of Born in Flames". Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory. 23 (1): 8. doi:10.1080/0740770X.2013.786340. S2CID 144915893.
  15. ^ "The Red Crayola* – Born In Flames". discogs.com. September 10, 1980. Retrieved July 19, 2018.
  16. ^ Kessler, Kelly (March 22, 2001). "Feminist Hollywood: From Born in Flames to Point Break (Book Review)". Velvet Light Trap. Archived from the original on September 24, 2015. Retrieved April 11, 2015.
  17. ^ Borden, Lizzie; Lassinaro, Kaisa (2011). Born in Flames, Occasional Papers. Occasional Papers. ISBN 978-0-9562605-9-8.
  18. ^ "Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory". Taylor & Francis. 23 (1). Retrieved December 7, 2015.
  19. ^ a b Ulaby, Neda (July 3, 2021). "This 1983 Feminist Film Was Set In The Dystopian Future, So Basically Right Now Facebook Twitter Flipboard Email". NPR. Retrieved December 31, 2022.
  20. ^ "This 1983 Feminist Film Was Set In The Dystopian Future, So Basically Right Now". NPR.
  21. ^ a b Brody, Richard (February 19, 2016). "The political science fiction of Born in Flames". The New Yorker. Retrieved December 31, 2022.
  22. ^ Anderson, Melissa (February 16, 2016). "Fire Starter: Lizzie Borden's First Films Still Light Up (and Burn Down) the Left". The Village Voice. Retrieved December 31, 2022.

External links[edit]