Released in 1983, Lizzie Borden’s film Born in Flames shows us the politics of time that a queer Black female angle of vision can open up. A politics of time shows that time, which appears as a neutral metaphysical category, is always politicised, often in such a way as to ensure the reproduction of a particular form of power. It therefore suggests that imbricated and conflicting temporalities are the primary node for radical politics. Through the three queer, radical, Black female protagonists of Born in Flames – Adelaide Norris, Zella Weily, and Honey – Borden illuminates the link between this particular subject position and the film’s untimely politics. Born in Flames exceeds the coordinates and determinations of the present order of things by unmasking the way in which power replicates itself through a colonisation of time.
While Born in Flames has been widely celebrated as an afro-futurist classic, to which we might turn for an uplifting narrative of struggle and hope, we should resist the increasingly popular and popularized reading of afro-futurism as ‘a utopic imagining of otherworldly racial harmony explored through seventies sportswear and Swarovski shimmers’ – not merely because such a reading is superficial, but because it is complicit in the political hegemony of time that is challenged in the film. Revisiting the film from our own vantage point suggests that the ‘future’ in afro-futurism can no longer be read as a utopic horizon to be reached through a playful progression on the same temporal continuum. Instead it might better be understood to refer to the politicization of time that works to explode this continuum altogether.
Born in Flames opens with an official party announcement of the ten-year anniversary of the first ever Socialist Democrat revolution in the USA. Since the revolution has already occurred, the doxic temporality is one in which radical rupture or alterity is no longer expected. Instead, evoking the rhetoric that decked out neoliberalism’s triumphant destruction of the Berlin Wall, the official consensus is that all the citizens of this one-party alternative reality should hope for is a progressive self-perfection over time of the party and its system. The official line is that gender parity has already been achieved, yet this is undercut through the vision of the film’s women, and in particular its Black queer women. The viewer is inundated with images of continued systemic misogyny and oppression. Through the splicing of documentary-like footage, clips of (fictional) official media outlets, surveillance footage and pirate radio, we witness over the course of the film the characters’ collective realization that the channels of accepted politics will not yield anything like meaningful change. The way in which our vision of the film’s events is often mediated through the optic of power, which monitors and attempts to neutralize anything that aims at overthrowing that power, only reinforces the point that democratic dialogue and routes are not only ineffective but in fact serve to mask the mechanisms of the world which these women are trying to resist.
In fact, the splicing of heterogeneous and heavily mediated material throughout the film (such as the COINTELPRO-like clandestine surveillance of these characters by the FBI), or the flat image of Adelaide’s face that is reproduced on the front pages announcing the fabricated narrative of her suicide) is integral to Borden’s temporal vision. Rather than undoing the uncompromising politics of time that the vision of the Black female queer gives us, they work to politicize the apparent neutrality of the film’s present, which despite its apparent futurity strikingly resembles our own. It is this similarity that lends itself to what I understand to be a politics of time, which is not only a politics that resists a particular feature of the present, but perhaps more significantly resists the temporal understanding that undergirds and reproduces particular features of the present.
By adopting the various optics and media of power, Borden is able to show that despite apparent ‘progress’, ‘equality’ and ‘tolerance’, barely concealed mechanisms of control continue to operate. In Born in Flames, regardless of the formal occurrence of ‘revolution’, we are privy to the brutal and calculating strategising of power. Indeed, the characters’ initial attempts at dialogue and more acceptable forms of protest are met with what almost becomes a refrain: ‘There are problems, we know. But things are so much better than they were before. Things are not going to happen overnight. It’s important that the party remains strong so progress can be made.’ The soporific effect of this chorus, however, quickly wears off for those who are woke – and by seeing the machinations of power, the viewer is also woken to the suggestion that a revolution occurring along the lines of the present promises only more of the same. In the words of Audre Lorde, ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.’
The viewer shares in the protagonists’ despair and rage at having to bear the struggles faced by their mothers and at the frustration they feel at coming up against the white liberal feminists’ disavowal of their struggle as ‘separatist’. Despite and in response to pacifying promises of progress, we witness through radio, radical spaces, and (militant) direct, the birth of a view akin to the one Michele Wallace expressed and that the radical Black queer feminist group the Combahee River Collective took up in (1978):
‘We exist as women who are Black who are feminists, each stranded for the moment, working independently because there is not yet an environment in this society remotely congenial to our struggle – because, being on the bottom, we would have to do what no one else has done: WE WOULD HAVE TO FIGHT THE WORLD’
Borden’s isolated and disempowered women band together to do precisely this. Far from remaining a separatist group they try to form lines of allegiance with male workers, urging them to strike and struggle together in solidarity. Refused and rebuffed by lame excuses that display cowardice and self-interest, they get in formation with the profound awareness that ‘it’s already, it’s that time’.
If, then, the task is ‘to fight the world’, the question that follows is how one dismantles the world – both the planetary scale of a hegemonic logic, and the way in which this logic gives coherence and viability to experience and thought in the present. In a way this is an almost unthinkable question, since it requires conceptualising an attack on the dominant mode of thought: that is, fighting the world requires such a radical inversion of thought that it is scarcely imaginable.
It is for this reason that Borden’s film can only begin to visualize this question. While we see the importance of friendship, solidarity, autonomous pleasure, communication and militancy, what is required for total revolution exceeds this. Borden’s film attacks the apparently depoliticized politics of time, which attempts to foreclose in advance all meaningful alterity and rupture. Like ‘the end of history’ that announced neoliberalism’s current global hegemony, the time after the revolution is systematically and ruthlessly anti-revolutionary. Not only are the women of the film collectively ‘tired of waiting on promises because they’ve been waiting too long’; this impatience also means an exit from the temporality in which they’ve been entombed. The characters’ refusal to wait for a future that is only a death sentence – more of the same – is at the same time an affirmation that explodes the logic of continuity and progression.
The final image of the film, in which a white male news broadcaster is interrupted by the destruction of the World Trade Center in a glittering column of fire, etches itself into our minds – and not only because it now seems to eerily prophecy the hyper-replicated image of the 9/11 attacks. More importantly, it tempts the viewer to identify with a radical move that would decisively strike at the twinned phalli of (what was then) capital’s latest incarnation of global neoliberal imperialism, while at the same time undercutting the view that one such act of spectacular violence would be adequate to the task at hand. As the sparkling image of the explosion of one of World Trade Center’s communication towers closes the film, it simultaneously opens a new politics of time, which is not that of a regulated sameness nor a teleologically governed revolution but something unimaginable: the end of the world, and therefore the inconceivable destruction of the system of oppression that immiserates everyone.
Viewed from this angle, the title of the film and the name of Phoenix Radio (the crucial vehicle for Honey’s simultaneously dulcet and incendiary words) take on more nuanced meanings. Endlessly arising from its own fiery destruction, the phoenix mirrors the endless repetition of Black women’s suffering and resistance. But by acknowledging this repetition, the symbol also wages a critique against a future-oriented and progressive temporality that serves only to reproduce its own coordinates of power. The sequence of Adelaide’s death before the protagonists’ attack on the World Trade Center seems to suggest an almost messianic narrative of time, in which her death acts as the necessary sacrifice for collective liberation through the apocalyptic means of the end of the world. But there is a contradiction here, since to fight the world means to rupture the coherence, continuity and promises of such established narratives.
Borden’s decision to use footage from then-contemporary New York, rather than the futuristic aesthetic we might expect in a nominally dystopian film, suggests a repetition of the inequalities and injustices of the present into the future ad infinitum: the future-oriented sacrifice of the revolution has resulted in a future that is no future, but looks almost exactly the same as now. Through the similarity between the position of Black women before the fictional revolution, the film’s post-revolutionary present, and the viewer’s own time (both when the film was released and significantly in 2016), the progressive and linear model of time – which works by producing and orienting hope towards a future always yet-to-come – is shown to be a fiction that has very real and damaging effects observable both in the film’s present and our own today. That is, by exposing the similarity in repeating patterns of inequality and violence, the film shows that a future-oriented politics of time is both hollow and contingent.
Thus as Stephen Dillon has noted, the film preempts the critique of future-oriented politics that has been articulated in the queer negativity of theorists such as Lee Edelman, as well as the pessimism of afro-pessimism. Indeed, reading the film now, from its own future-present, might twist it further out of joint. For the film not only remains significant as a dramatization of the Women-of-Color and Black feminist struggles of its own time, but also as an articulation of something akin to a kind of queer afro-pessimism, on which ‘the structure of the entire world’s semantic field is sutured by anti-Black solidarity’. From this angle the movement of the film towards joyful destruction becomes even more essential, and it takes on world-annihilating resonance in such a way as to ‘refuse solution-oriented, interest-based’ ends. While Calvin Warren has suggested recently that the Black queer is outside of ontology and unimaginable because of its non-human status as the object of a kind of hyper-violence, Born in Flames allows us to add that this unimaginable status is also due to its potential to rupture the world.
Despite the film being widely cited as an example of the internally heterogeneous aesthetic movement referred to as afro-futurism, then, the politics of time that the film opens up through the lens of the Black female queer indicates a point at which afro-futurism meets afro-pessimism, causing us to reassess the very idea of ‘future’ in the label of afro-futurism. Born in Flames suggests that the future referred to is one that defies the register of linear time: that it is an unthinkable future, not simply a repetition of the present; that a future worthy of the name that cannot be plotted through linear continuity. Instead, such a future is a kind of unthinkable moment that requires the reorienting of our desire away from the future as it is currently presented to us, and towards the impossible project of a complete re-envisioning of time.
 This term comes from decolonial theorist Gary Wilder’s recent treatment of Cesaire and Senghor in Freedom Time: Negritude, Decolonization and the Future of the World (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015). See also “Untimely Vision: Aimé Cesaire, Decolonization, Utopia,” Public Culture 21, no. 1 (2009): 101–40;
 This quotation comes from Another Magazine’s feature “Grace Wales Bonner: Fashion’s Modern Afrofuturist”. It is symptomatic of the wider view that is contemporaneous with the rapid institutionalisation and co-option of Afrofuturism.
 Stephen Dillon has explored the links between Born in Flames, queer negativity and Afro-pessimism at length. My intervention here is to critique a reading of afro-futurism in terms of hope, utopianism, heterosexual reproduction and futurity. Stephen Dillon, “‘It’s Here, It’s That Time’: Race, Queer Futurity, and the Temporality of Violence in Born in Flames”,” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 23, no. 1 (2013): 38–51.
 Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” in Sister Outsider (Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press, 1984).
 The Combahee River Collective, “A Black Feminist Statement,” in Feminist Theory Reader: Local and Global Perspectives, ed. Carole R. McCann and Seung-Kyung Kim (New York, London: Routledge, 2003).
 A Black Feminist’s Search for Sisterhood’ the village voice, 1975, 6-7
 Stephen Dillon has explored the links between Born in Flames, queer negativity and afro-pessimism at length. My intervention here is to critique a reading of afro-futurism in terms of hope, utopianism, heterosexual reproduction and futurity. Stephen Dillon, “‘It’s Here, It’s That Time’: Race, Queer Futurity, and the Temporality of Violence in Born in Flames”,” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 23, no. 1 (2013): 38–51.
 Frank B. Wilderson III., Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms (Durham, NC: Duke University Press Books, 2010), 58–9.
Romy Opperman is in the third year of the doctoral program in Philosophy at Pennsylvania State University, working at the intersection of poststructuralism, decolonial philosophy, critical philosophy of race and critical feminist science studies. Her project explores the links between racialisation, colonisation and ecologies. Her M.Phil was at the University of Cambridge in Criticism and Culture, and her BA in Philosophy and Literature at the University of Warwick.