In my experience, documentary films usually fall into two categories: those that shed light on a subject or offer new information, and those that offer evidence to confirm what I already knew. For me, Out in the Night is the latter.
As a queer black woman, I have spent years battling against stereotypes that would paint me as oversexed, angry and aggressive. Whether reading a history book or watching the nightly news, it was already clear to me that that the chances of being harassed or assaulted were higher for me, and women who looked like me, than for white women. I’ve studied the ways in which racism, classism, sexism, and heterosexism intersect. Therefore I am saddened, but often not surprised, when I review the rates of incarceration and lengths of sentences among women of color in general, and queer women of color in particular, compared to other populations. Yet, the power of documentary film is that it transforms statistics into stories and nameless, faceless, others into breathing, bleeding human beings. No evidence is more compelling than witnessing the lived experiences of others and seeing, for your own eyes, as injustices unfold.
Directed by Blair Doroshwalther, Out in the Night tells the story of four young women (Renata Hill, Patreese Johnson, Terrain Dandridge and Venice Brown) who, after defending themselves against a man who harassed and attacked them, were arrested and sentenced from three to eleven years of prison. The film takes a close look at the incident that occurred on August 16, 2006 via interviews, court testimonials, security camera footage, and police dispatch audio and follows the case of “The New Jersey Four” from before they are arrested to the very last appeal.
The film starts by revealing that the “bloodthirsty” “lesbian wolfpack” (as sensational media headlines called them at the time) were in fact young lesbian women who had grown up together like sisters. They were bonded by shared experiences of growing up in Newark, NJ, in a tight-knit, multi-generational community that, like many impoverished communities, had its share of violence and gangs. They were bonded by a general mistrust of the police who had failed to ‘’serve and protect” members of their families and communities in the past. They were bonded by the shared identity of being queer black women who, despite being accepted by their families, did not always find acceptance on the streets of their hometown. Therefore, these friends often traveled together to the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City where they thought they were free to be themselves. It was on one of these many trips to the West Village that an altercation with a stranger on the street would change their lives forever.
The incident in question (a four-minute fight between 28 year-old Dwayne Buckle and seven women) is replayed by juxtaposing Buckle’s transcribed testimony and that of the Hill, Dandridge, Brown and Johnson so that the viewer may decide for themselves what really happened that night. Although, the viewer may never truly be able to piece together the events of that night into a perfect picture, one fact remains certain: Whether the four women who defended themselves from a man who allegedly threatened to “fuck them straight” broke the law or not, the punishment they were subjected to did not fit the crime.
Three of the seven women involved in the altercation pleaded guilty to a violent felony (although their actions were actually those of misdemeanor conduct) in exchange for a quick release. The other four women denied that they did anything wrong and decided to go to trial. In doing so, they were eventually convicted and given long sentences on charges that typically carry a fine or a brief prison stay.
Although the film in no way attempts to condone violence, it makes it clear that the real story here is not the events of August 16, 2006, but the draconian sentences each of the women received and the tragic miscarriage of justice that stole eight years from their young lives. The treatment of the women, by both the media and the legal system, was downright criminal, and reiterates the plight of women of color, and queer women of color in this country. Alongside the murder of 15-year-old Sakia Gunn, and the arrest and sentencing of Marissa Alexander, the conviction of these women repeats the same narrative: For black women facing violence in this country, the choice often comes down to being killed or being caged.