“Out In The Night,” which had its World Premiere Thursday night at the Los Angeles Film Festival, is a sober look at how the justice system failed four young black lesbians in New York City, seemingly based on gender, race and sexuality. Competing for Best Documentary, director blair dorosh-walther chronicles the true case of four women from Newark who traveled to the gay-friendly West Village neighborhood in New York, and found themselves harassed, verbally and physically, by a straight man who seemed upset by their sexuality. They fought back, and boy did they pay for that decision.
The fight happened just outside of the IFC Theatre on Avenue of the Americas and West 3rd. There were harsh words between the man and the group of seven women, which escalated into the attitude of “I’m going to (expletive) ‘rape’ you straight.” A rough altercation followed in which a male bystander even jumped in and defended the women. But in the end, one of the women, Patreese Johnson, took out a steak knife (that her brother told her to carry for protection) and the man got stabbed. Was he critically injured? No. Did they all walk away? Yes.
But when someone told the man he was bleeding, 911 was called and the women were arrested. The press had a field day with headlines ranging from “Attack of the Killer Lesbians,” “Gal Gang” or the misleading, “A man is stabbed after admiring a stranger.”
(On a personal note, as a woman who lived in New York for a decade, my experience is that comments thrown out while walking down the street aren’t poetic words of admiration but true words of sexual harassment. So for a newspaper to print such an atrocious lie is more a news mentality of a “If it bleeds, it leads” salacious headline).
Because these women were in a group of more than three and were involved in an assault, one NYPD officer explains, the women were labeled a gang, even though none had gang affiliations. But four of the seven women were defiant – they would not cop to a plea of guilty because they did not believe they were guilty of assault; they were simply defending themselves. The three who did plead received reduced jail time, while the other four women, Renata Hill, Patreese Johnson, Terrain Dandridge, and Venice Brown, plead not guilty and chose to try their case in court.
“Out In The Night” follows these women over the years as they go through the jury and jail systems, as well as documents the effects on them and their families. These four women became known as the “New Jersey Four,” – their nickname is a nod to the Central Park Five, which was a similar headline biased case 17 years earlier that jailed one Latino and four Black men for the rape and near-murder of a Central Park Jogger (years later they were found to be innocent).
Thus, it seems history repeats itself. With its first person interviews, news reports and stunning security footage that depicts the elements of the assault, “Out In The Night” asks is if you are black, female and a lesbian, will you get a fair shake in the justice system? It’s a complicated question and filmmaker dorosh-walther puts together a moving film that smartly makes this personal question universal.
“Out In The Night” is 74 minutes and Not Rated. "Out In The Night" will also launch Film Independent and the United Nations' Free and Equal Global Film Series on Sunday, June 15. For information, check out the Los Angeles Film Festival website.