#SciFiSunday: Born in Flames’ Adelaide Norris, A Sci-Fi Joan of Arc

By Carolyn Mauricette (@vfdpixie)

Thirty years ago, an independent film tried to illustrate what a society with a new social equality would be like.  The 1983 sci-fi film Born in Flames by feminist filmmaker Lizzie Borden, is set in an alternate reality where people live in supposed harmony ten years after a peaceful Social-Democratic War of Liberation.  Unfortunately,  women continue to be harassed, underemployed and underrepresented in government.  As a result, an underground Woman’s Army is born.  Spearheaded by two lesbians, one Black and the other White, many cells form and unify through radio, music and the written word.  The film depicts the views, perspectives and merging of women from all walks of life in a rough and raw documentary style.  

Born in Flames was revolutionary for its time, and I think it is still relevant today. This film has many layers, with both a speculative as well as a science fictional representation of a parallel universe that denies oppression. One of the main characters, Adelaide Norris played by Jean Satterfield, came to the forefront for me because of her race and role in the story. Adelaide is one of the key characters who pulls the female troops together.  With the help of her mentor Zella, played by civil rights lawyer Flo Kennedy, this young Black and gay woman tirelessly researches, advises, and recruits women to fight the good fight for equality. 

She is also being monitored by the F.B.I., as they read the mobilization of women as terrorist activity. Soft spoken, but strong, Adelaide is not shouting from the rooftops about inequality.  Instead, she educates, informs and persuades women to unite, which becomes a threat as the F.B.I. sees that she is extremely effective. After a trip to Africa in which she delivers firearms to a women’s movement there, she is arrested and dies suspiciously in custody. Her death is the unifying factor in this fight for women’s equality, and she becomes a martyr for the movement. She is also the personification of what is still an issue today. How is a black woman, gay or straight, seen in today’s world? 

In interviews from Kick it Over #18 (1987) and Grit TV with Laura Flanders, Borden explains that she wanted to unify different inequalities and feminist movements for one cause; to defy what the dominant culture was offering.  The black feminist experience is definitely different to mainstream feminism, and Borden tried to shed light on this as well as disenfranchised minorities to create a woman who wants change in a world that professes equality and freedoms for all.  As Adelaide is monitored by the powers that be, I thought about how women of color are monitored and portrayed in the media.  Adelaide did not look like the status quo: her symmetrical and attractive face was not adorned with makeup; her hair was never coiffed to perfection.  She's cut with a more masculine figure even with her petite frame, and in some ways, it seemed that her personage and sexuality was more of a threat than her actions.  

It is an interesting parallel to our reality now. As freedom of speech and human rights are in the forefront in the media these days, the repercussions are harsh and plentiful.  As women of color, our voices are slowly emerging and being heard, but the world still needs work to hear us. Too many Adelaide's in this time and space are fighting for their right to be heard, and just as the underground radio station kept the cause alive, so does social media.   

Many black women have found a place in cyberspace, and I’d like to think that it is the new democratic society.  There will be trolls and naysayers, but as our numbers grow, just as the Woman’s Army grew, we will have a voice.  Adelaide stood for a future that may seem unattainable in this reality while her take charge attitude was policed; her outspoken approach strangled, but in Borden’s dystopian world, she became an icon of resistance, solidarity and hope.

I at one time thought that Borden had written Adelaide’s character from scratch, and my response was one of uncertainty because I wondered about the words coming from a script written by a woman who may have not known about the black experience, a bleeding heart liberal so to speak.  I was partially correct.  Borden didn’t know any black women, but she was also not a mainstream feminist.  She couldn’t relate to what was going on at the time, and being influenced by more radical feminists around her, she rebelled against the status quo to give a voice to those people and ideas that were marginalized.   

This film started with a concept, an idea that grew through the collective work of the actors and director.  What I admire is that through a mostly improvised script, she documented the voices of women who were actually in the experience, actually living as lesbians, feminists, and radicals.  It allowed for the actors to workshop their responses in this alternate universe, to verbalize and enact the fantasy of a feminist mobilization and uprising.  While it is true that through the editing process, the film is ultimately Borden’s vision, she uses the words that come from real women, and their thoughts on an alternate reality and its outcome.

I am by no means a radical feminist as seen in Born In Flames, but I can assure you that the hypocrisy depicted in the film and in today’s society is not good with me. I look forward to a day when a girl can go to school in Africa without fearing for her life, when women get equal pay for their work, and freedom of speech will not get you killed.  Is it pure science fiction?  A utopian pipe dream?  Who knows, but I am glad that there are Adelaide's out there working tirelessly to be heard.

Carolyn is a film programmer for the Blood in the Snow Film Festival and a contributing author to the first edition of the Women in Horror Annual, The Encyclopedia of Japanese Horror Films (Rowman & Littlefield), and The Encyclopedia of Racism in American Films (Rowman & Littlefield). She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic and has also written pieces on diversity and women in sci-fi for Graveyard Shift Sisters, film reviews for Cinema Axis, and Rue Morgue Magazine, online and in print, and articles in Grim Magazine. Her focus is on independent and Canadian horror, women in horror, and the representation of people of color within the genre. She has a new site, View From The Dark, where she deep dives into race and representation of people of color in genre film. You can follow her on Twitter (@vfdpixie)

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