Born In Flames was shot on a shoestring budget and looks it, but the low-cost production quality only adds (imho) to its documentary immediacy. Like most “near future” films from any longer than 5 years in the past, it is quaintly dated; the film makers for example set up “shocking” gas station price signs at $2.50 a gallon (unthinkable in the late 70′s when they were probably finishing up the script and shooting plan); automobiles and street fashions clearly date the film to within a couple of years either side of 1980, and so on. These are inevitable qualities of the genre — it always ages a bit strangely
The plot in a nutshell: it is ten years after “the most peaceful revolution in history,” by which the US became a socialist nation. The country is celebrating its emancipation from the Bad Old Days; we see footage of happy workers as the opening voice-over welcomes us to anniversary feature coverage on major network news. The camera focuses on one construction worker, a handsome young Black woman: Adelaide Norris. She is under surveillance. Male voices (Anglo, managerial) discuss her, invading her pricacy, viewing photos of her and her family on a slide projector. She is a member of “The Women’s Army,” an underground feminist group… This group will collide with the male-dominated new socialist government. The film is about the collision of feminism with a mainstream socialism, the betrayal of feminists by the American Left, the collision of State power and female autarky — and the possibility of armed, organised female resistance.
Early in the film we see the Women’s Army in action: a woman is harassed and then assaulted on the street, and out of nowhere come a small posse of women on bicycles blowing whistles, surrounding and intimidating the attackers and comforting and aiding their target. A voice-over segues into a video news segment showing the condescending, patronising official male media reporting of the event, and informing us that the forces of the State (the police) are looking for information about the “vigilante” women. “Maybe including their phone numbers,” quips the male, Anglo TV talking head with a har-de-har wink and nod. The complicity of mass media with state repression, against women, is established from the beginning.
The film follows, in a raw-edged documentary version of the Altman style, several sets of (initially) unrelated groups of women who will eventually be brought together in collective action as the plot develops. The Women’s Army, a social service and self-defence collective, organises anti-rape actions and childcare; one of its leaders is Adelaide, who is about to be fired from her construction job along with a lot of other women who are being canned to make more jobs for men in the “new socialist economy.” (Meanwhile, the new socialist President proposes Wages For Housework as the right way to restore female equality.) Two independent — perhaps pirate — radio stations are introduced: Radio Phoenix, a Black women’s station, and Radio Regatta, run by a motley crew of mostly-Anglo young female punk-rockers. We also meet an all-Anglo trio of female editors of the Socialist Youth newspaper, who have just been recognised and rewarded by the mainstream media for their contribution to society. And we meet indefatigable feminist lawyer and revolutionary veteran Zella Wylie, played with exquisite sarcasm and wisdom by the late, great Flo Kennedy. These “factions” of women are unable or unwilling to work together; the young socialist news editors are too much in love with their own prestige and the approval of the male/State power structure, the punk girls are disdainful of the plodding feminists with their childcare centres and meetings (“all talk and no action”), the Women’s Army is not quite trusted by the crew at Phoenix Radio — heck, they ride bicycles, they can’t be serious people. As one of the Phoenix collective says, “The Women’s Army is not mature enough to hang out with me.”
Meanwhile, the “sociaist” government — in a series of moves which prefigure the real-world neoliberal rollback of the New Deal — is failing to meet its promises to the people. Meaningful jobs are not being provided for the masses. Angry men are resentful of women in the workforce. and the government starts laying off women. Clerical workers are still mostly female and still being harassed by male bosses. The sinister agents surveilling the Women’s Army cadres intervene to make sure they get fired, to “put pressure on them in their workplaces” — Adelaide is now out of work. State funding is being cut for services to rape victims, and redirected to “re-education and re-entry” programs for rapists; as a (male) State spokesman says, in the new socialist state “there is no such thing as a ‘bad boy’.” Funding for childcare is being cut. Angry women picket construction sites, chaining the gates shut and demanding their jobs back. Women stage demonstrations; young underemployed men stage riots. There are rumours of repression coming soon, of possible urban relocation programmes, of ethnic cleansing. Both the pirate radio stations are burned out by arsonists reported by the mass media as “vandals” inflamed by the “extremist separatist politics” of the women who ran them; but we the viewers — privy to the secret government campaign against feminists and people of colour — suspect the hand of the State at work.
Adelaide has decided that armed resistance will be necessary in the confrontation that’s coming, and with great effort convinces the Women’s Army of this. The debate over the ethics of armed struggle is difficult, but through Zella’s old anti-imperialist contacts Adelaide travels to the Sahara to participate in training for an anticolonialist war, and arranges delivery of small arms to her group back home. (The connection between women’s struggle against patriarchy and colonised nations’ struggle against colonial power is quite explicit.) Surveillance ends and repression begins: the State steps in to defend its monopoly on armed violence. On her way home, Adelaide is arrested and whisked aside at the airport, to be immediately “lost” in the city jail system. Police functionaries will not admit where or if she is being held. One of the government agents instructs his people to get out of her, by whatever means necessary, the names of any other Americans she met in the Sahara training camps. She is (implicitly, not on screen) tortured, and dies in custody on her first night in jail.
The official story is that she committed suicide.
No one believes this — not even the naive, privileged all-white editorial collective at the Socialist Youth newspaper. They defy their patronising male editor who is pressuring them to bury the story [his controlling, manipulative lecture alone is worth the price of admission]; the radio stations mobilise. But the mass media are obediently repeating the official story; so the Women’s Army in concert with the punk brigade pull off their first major act of armed rebellion; they invade the CBS studios at gunpoint during the evening news, interrupting a live telecast of the President’s speech on Wages for Housework, and force the broadcast crew to play a prerecorded tape in which Zella tells the real story of Adelaide’s death. Zella is arrested the next day; but the campaign to take over the official media continues. The second revolution is underway. Women are demanding proportional representation in the workplace and in the government. At the end of the film, the Women’s Army takes out the CBS broadcast tower atop one of the WTC towers with a satchel of plastique and a timed fuse… the mainstream media has been taken offline. All bets are off… roll the end credits.
It is a somewhat naive story, and has been accused by critics of being “rambling,” “pointless,” “overly polemical,” and so on. It has been accused of excessive violence — though far fewer things are blown up and far fewer people shot than in any one of the usual pile of braindead summer blockbusters. It has been accused of having a lousy soundtrack, with some justice — the audio is of such poor quality at times that one wishes for subtitles, and the music track gets old fast. But BiF retains, for me anyway, an energy, a hopefulness, and a qualitative difference from mainstream cinema which make it cinéma altermondialiste — a film from that “other world” that we keep hoping is possible.
BiF departs from the Lone Cowboy Hero school of action film making to show collective process and action as a natural, logical way for human beings to address injustice and face conflict. It is woman-centred — the majority of characters are women — and of the most important and visible characters, the majority are Black women. The lesbian characters are simply taken for granted — except by the obnoxiously prurient, patronising male agents of State control. Women are protected and defended from male aggression by other women acting collectively, not by lone male (or even female) vigilante rescuers.
The story is told from the viewpoint of working people; one memorable extended jump-cut sequence shows many kinds of women’s work, women’s hands doing all kinds of labour (from washing dishes to wrapping chicken on the packing plant line to rolling a condom over a john’s erection): women doing the work that holds the world together. A socialist revolution in the US is taken for granted as an historical possibility — not the main point of the story, but merely its starting point; and a feminist critique of the male left is the whole point of the movie, a warning that a male-defined socialism can, and may well, sweep women back under the rug as soon as its legitimacy is established. Prostitution is clearly called out as an oppressive institution, without blaming or scorning prostituted women. Essential points of feminist argument and debate — working within the system vs attacking it from without, working strictly within nonviolence or engaging in armed struggle, the role of the media and its importance in social change — are aired naturally as the plot progresses. Much of the “action” is women talking to one another: seriously, intently talking and discussing. Grassroots organising, the grunt work of outreach to people on the street, in the workplace, at demonstrations and picket lines — is shown as a matter of course, an everyday reality. In other words, this naive and otherworldly film is far more grounded in the reality of social change work than most “revolutionary” action films which focus on agonal protagonists indulging in personal heroics. And unlike summer blockbusters, there is no neat, tidy happy ending, nor is a romantic subplot offered to the viewer as a substitute for justice.
The only modern action film I can compare to BiF in its presentation of strong female lead characters, acceptance of lesbian characters (well one, anyway), lead roles for Black actresses, and the theme of women violently confronting established/institutional power, is the (imho far less inspiring) 1996 “Set It Off” (with Jada Pinkett Smith, Queen Latifah, Vivica A Fox, Kimberly Elise). However, SiO is a wholly different film — set in a neoliberal universe where the crew of four women stage a daring bank heist in order to redress injustice… by making themselves rich. Their rebellion, though linked to the poverty and injustice that each woman has experienced, is isolated — without the context of any political movement or collective action. Their happy ending, if any, will be an individual solution: to make off with the loot and start new lives, not to transform their society.
One aspect of BiF that embarrassed me on first viewing in 1983 and is even more embarrassing today, is the “wannabe urban Black” act and other bits of identity theft manifested by the Anglo lead singer (played by Bertei) of the punk band. As she variously appears in a kaffiyeh or with cornrowed hair, or trying to “sound Black” while reciting vaguely Gil Scott-Heronish rap poetry, I have to wonder what an Anglo actress was doing in the part . . . but given the far stronger performances by the trio who hold the film together (Honey, Satterfield, Kennedy) Bertei’s posturing seems a relatively minor annoyance. The punk band and Radio Regatta are essentially filler and continuity material, holding together the “documentary” sequences that show the evolution of the Women’s Army from self-organising social service provision to armed resistance. It is Adelaide Norris, Zella Wylie, and Honey who steal our hearts and give us hope for a better future, hope for the power of women self-organising at the grassroots.