Lizzie Borden's 'Born In Flames' Finds New Life In A New Feminist Generation Born in Flames was made by pioneering underground filmmaker Lizzie Borden. She vanished from screens for decades, and now her work is being rediscovered.

This 1983 Feminist Film Was Set In The Dystopian Future, So Basically Right Now

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DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, HOST:

You may have heard of Lizzie Borden, the Victorian axe murderess. You may not have heard of a pioneering filmmaker who uses the same name. Lizzie Borden, the director, made two movies more than 30 years ago that are now feminist classics. Then she seemingly disappeared. NPR's Neda Ulaby tells us why Lizzie Borden might be the visionary artist we need in 2021.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Lizzie Borden's first movie is set in a dingy, dystopian New York City, where an underground women's army is plotting against the government.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BORN IN FLAMES")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Black women, be ready. White women, get ready. Red women, stay ready, for this is our time, and all must realize it.

ULABY: Inequity, police violence, sexual violence, transphobia and surveillance motivate the protagonists of "Born In Flames" from 1983. That's why Jasmine Wahi, the first social justice curator at the Bronx Museum, designed a new show there completely around it.

JASMINE WAHI: You know, there's something kind of shocking about how it has survived the test of time and feels very relevant today.

LIZZIE BORDEN: I could only shoot maybe once a month, every time I had $200.

ULABY: Director Lizzie Borden.

BORDEN: So I would gather everyone in this old Lincoln Continental I kept parked in front of my loft. We'd go somewhere and shoot, and then I'd spend the interim just editing.

ULABY: Today, young people tell Lizzie Borden her movie seems so dark. But she says it's what New York looked like at the time.

BORDEN: Drug dealers had taken over the Lower East Side. The buildings looked bombed out. There was graffiti everywhere. There was no art direction required.

ULABY: Grittiness befits a film where brigades of women roam New York City on bicycles, blowing whistles and fighting rapists. Parts of the movie almost seem like it could have been made last summer.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BORN IN FLAMES")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) This is Radio Raggaza bringing you the latest news observation. There seems to be some very peculiar things happening these days. Angry unemployed people are rioting in the streets, and the city is on fire with their rage.

ULABY: "Born In Flames" delves into tension between well-off white women who imagine themselves as progressive and the women's army who they dismiss as a ragtag bunch of working-class racial and sexual minorities.

BORDEN: I thought, well, there have to be lesbians in this movie. And there have to be Black women in this movie. But the problem was I didn't know any Black women.

ULABY: Director Lizzie Borden had to go out and build community with people she had not met during her time at Wellesley College or at Artforum magazine. She knew she had to give herself a different education.

BORDEN: I started reading statements from the Combahee River Collective. And they were talking about simultaneous expression of race and class and gender.

ULABY: What we now call intersectional politics, says Susana Morris, a professor who studies Afrofuturism.

SUSANA MORRIS: Lizzie Borden went to Black communities and involved Black folk in the creation of the work.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BORN IN FLAMES")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) We have a right to violence. All oppressed people have a right to violence. It's like the right to pee. You got to have the right place. You got to have the right time. You got to have the appropriate situation. And I'm absolutely convinced that this is it.

MORRIS: There should be lots of Black women leading the revolution.

ULABY: Morris says it's no accident that work from the 1980s by Lizzie Borden, Margaret Atwood and Octavia Butler is finding audiences now interested in their combination of science fiction with issues like rape, women's unpaid labor and deeply dysfunctional governments.

MORRIS: This is prescient in so many ways. I wish that more people would see "Born In Flames."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ULABY: The movie and its super-catchy soundtrack has gotten a recent restoration and a rerelease, and now so has Borden's follow-up film, "Working Girls." It was her breakthrough in 1986, with awards, rave reviews and picked up by Harvey Weinstein. Borden believes he went on to ruin her career.

BORDEN: What happened to me was I went into movie jail, very serious movie jail, with a film called "Love Crimes."

ULABY: Weinstein's company produced. Actress Sean Young starred.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAILER)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Two of Hollywood's hottest video rental stars in "Love Crimes."

ULABY: Now Young says Weinstein harassed her during the shoot. His production company drastically recut "Love Crimes" and added footage Borden hated before it came out in 1992. And Borden says Weinstein branded her in Hollywood as difficult. Her career never recovered.

BORDEN: It's been hard to support myself. And I have a lot of debt, which I keep rolling over.

MORRIS: She should have been making dozens and dozens of - as many films as she wanted to make.

ULABY: Professor Susana Morris says she feels cheated of all the Lizzie Borden movies that should have come out for the past three decades, movies that explored race, power and sexuality in difficult, funny, cutting-edge ways.

BORDEN: I wanted people to leave "Born In Flames" with a mission.

ULABY: For her part, Lizzie Borden says her queer, punk intersectional movie from the 1980s had a force that still gives it life.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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