"Lizzie Borden, the filmmaker, is not to be confused with the serial killer," declares museum curator Jasmine Wahi, barely suppressing a laugh.
To be clear: Lizzie Borden, the filmmaker, was born in the late 1950s, in Detroit. Her chosen forename (originally Linda), pays homage to the infamous ax murderess who took a whack at the patriarchy nearly a century earlier.
"She was — and is — a radical intersectional feminist," Wahi says of filmmaker Lizzie Borden, explaining why her 1983 movie Born in Flames became the starting ground for Wahi's current show at the Bronx Museum of the Arts about feminism and futurity. "There's something kind of shocking about how it has survived the test of time and feels very relevant today."
Born in Flames is an entertaining, energetic mélange of punk and science fiction, set in the not-too-distant future (which is to say, around now). An underground women's army is fomenting in a dystopian New York City. As social unrest rocks the street, brigades of women on bicycles roam the grim cityscape to fight off rapists. But the dramatic tension derives largely from the efforts of women — black and white, queer and heteronormative, working class and elite — to understand and work with each other. In an especially startling note today, it ends with a group of them bombing the World Trade Center.
"I could only shoot once a month, when I had $200," Borden told NPR, her voice warm with nostalgia as she recalls making her first feature film. Born in Flames took her more than five years to complete. When she started, Borden was still in her 20s, a Wellesley College graduate and writer for ArtForum magazine disillusioned by the rampant misogyny of the art world and intent upon creating her own vision of the future. "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."
"Everyone" included a few people famous today – performer Eric Bogosian as a news director held hostage in his first film role, future Oscar-winning director Katheryn Bigelow playing a privileged journalist dismissive of the women's army – but the film truly belongs to a number of Black performers, including civil rights activist Florynce Kennedy and a former star athlete, Jean Satterfield, as the charismatic leader of the women's army.
"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," Borden recalls. "Downtown, there were just a couple of Black artists like Howardena Pindell and Adrian Piper, but I had never met them."
Borden was looking for a kind of feminism that spoke with more than one voice, she says. And she wasn't finding it in places like Ms. Magazine at the time. "I started reading certain statements, like from the Combahee River Collective," she remembers. "And they were talking about simultaneous statements of race and class and gender."
These days, that's called intersectionality, says professor Susana Morris, who teaches Black feminism, digital media and Afrofuturism at Georgia Tech.
"Lizzie Borden went to Black communities and involved Black folk in the creation of the work," Morris says. "That's a particular kind of model for — maybe not for Afrofuturist work — but for white allies, or non-Black allies who want to be in conversation with what possible futures could be. The way that the film really highlights the inherent radicalness of Black feminism, folks thinking intersectionally, thinking about anti-capitalism, thinking about queerness and labor — those were really striking to me in the film."
Born in Flames experienced a rebirth in 2016 — a meticulous restoration by the Anthology Film Archives, promotion by the Criterion Channel and a re-release that took Borden to screenings around the world.
It's no accident, Morris says, that science fiction-inflected work from the 1980s by Lizzie Borden, Margaret Atwood and Octavia Butler that interrogates rape culture, women's unpaid labor and deeply dysfunctional governments is resonating with audiences today. Still, she finds it disappointing that Borden's film is still largely relegated to screenings at museums and college campuses. "I wish more people would see Born in Flames," Morris says.
Artist Shoshanna Weinberger had not seen the film before her own work was selected for the Bronx Museum show, Born in Flames: Feminist Futures. (It's running though mid-September.) But now she's proud her art is being exhibited alongside Lizzie Borden's. "I do consider myself working along those lines," she says. "The idea of intersectionality in this film is very prevalent."
But what became of Lizzie Borden, the filmmaker? After Born in Flames, she directed a movie set in a brothel. Working Girls was her breakout film in 1986, winning rave reviews by mainstream critics like Roger Ebert, winning awards at the Sundance Film Festival, and getting picked up for national distribution ... by notable non-feminist Harvey Weinstein. His company, Miramax, produced Borden's next film. She believes he ruined her career.
"What happened to me is I went into movie jail, very serious movie jail, with a movie called Love Crimes," she relates. The script was about sex, power and consent. She loved it. Weinstein's company produced it. Much later, lead actress Sean Young accused Weinstein of exposing himself to her during filming. Borden was unaware of that harassment, but is certain Weinstein branded her as "difficult" in Hollywood after he wrested away control of the film, insisting on recutting it and adding footage Borden hated. "He kind of destroyed me," she says now. "And he did not let me take my name off of [Love Crimes] although, by the end, it was not my film."
Since then, Borden has been working mostly behind the scenes, consulting on scripts and teaching.
"It's been difficult," she says. "It's been hard to support myself, and I have a lot of debt which I keep rolling over."
Fans wonder why Borden was never tapped to direct episodes, for example, of a TV show like Orange Is the New Black. Professor Susana Morris feels cheated of all the Lizzie Borden movies that should've come out for the past three decades. "She should've been making dozens and dozens — as many films as she wanted to make," Morris says. Movies that explored race, power and sexuality in difficult, funny, cutting edge ways. Now that her film Working Girls is also being restored, by the Criterion Collection, and seeing a national re-release this summer, Borden and her timely vision may — after years of marginalization — be allowed to run riot across screens.
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) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.