“Out in the Night” is a must-watch movie about homophobia, racism and self-defense tonight on PBS

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Picture this: It’s 2 a.m. and you’re walking with a group of all-female friends. There are people out because you’re in New York—the city that never sleeps. Suddenly you pass a man who starts catcalling you, telling you he wants what’s between your legs, pointing at your crotch. Your friend defends you; says you and all the rest of the women are her girlfriends. Instead of laughing it off, the man gets more agitated, tells you he will “fuck you straight” and spits on one of you. What do you do?

For Renata Hill, Patreese Johnson, Terrain Dandrige and Venice Brown, this was a reality, and what happened after a man named Dwayne Buckle sexually harassed and then accosted these four women and their three other friends has unfolded into a horrific tragedy of the American legal justice system. Tonight on PBS, the documentary Out in the Night will tell the story of the New Jersey Four and how a late night incident in the West Village led to their immediately being referred to as a lesbian gang with prison sentences and spread falsehoods about who they are and what their actions were that early morning.

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Filmmaker blair dorosh-walther first became interested in the women’s story when she read about it in the papers (with headlines like “Killer Lesbian Gang!”) in 2006.

“I initially found out about the assault the day after it happened. Media in New York was very immediate. The Post, the Daily News and The New York Times all had articles the next day so I really got involved as an activist the first two years and did so right away,” blair said.  

One of the most infuriating pieces blair sites was the Times article “Man Is Stabbed in Attack After Admiring a Stranger.”

“That got me because it was two female journalists and we didn’t know what happened at first but the outrageousness of the headlines and these two female journalists calling this man an admirer at three o’clock in the morning—I mean, I don’t know a woman who hasn’t been sexually harassed in the street in New York,” blair said. “It got under my skin and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.”

Although her background is in film, blair “didn’t think a white director should tell the story initially,” so she maintained her involvement as an activist. But in 2008, she saw their appeals were approaching with no one helping to tell their side of the story, she decided to approach them about documenting their experiences.

“It’s one of those stories I couldn’t get out of my head. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I knew if I had been with a group of my white friends and this happened it would be a very different outcome,” blair said. “I have a couple friends who are very quick to jump into a fight—not to say that these women were—but I’ve definitely been around it and nothing of this magnitude ever happened and I don’t think that it would.”

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blair met with the women, their families and their attorneys to see if there was any interest in her working on a film about their situation.

“We kind of started this long process of getting to know each other before I ever brought a camera around to see if we’d be a good fit,” blair said, “because I didn’t want to tell the story if they weren’t going to be comfortable with me. And we just vibed really quickly and really got along so we ended up being a good fit.”

“When blair first came to us about doing a film, I didn’t look at it like ‘Oh a white person shouldn’t be doing this film.’ I looked at it like, ‘Finally, somebody want to hear our side to the story!'” Patreese said. “And she didn’t only hear our side but blair really did her homework. She really investigated so I feel like it’s kind of disrespectful to even put her race with this case because as a human and an individual she took it upon herself because she was angry and she knew something was wrong to actually step up. And there was nobody else that actually stepped up to even write a different side to our story. We was automatically convicted, and the media during trial was automatically ‘guilty,’ nobody ever thought to ask a different question. So nobody ever asked that question, ‘Well did they really defend themselves? Let’s look at it.’ Nobody.”

Renata said that blair connected with their story on a different level, because she and some of the other women in the group are masculine-identified, which Renata thinks might have had to do with how threatened Dwayne was during the altercation.

“blair is part of the LGBT community and she is masculine-identified and when she steps outside, she can be uncomfortable because people around her often look at her like ‘Oh you think you’re a man’ or this, that and the third and you have to explain why you are who you are,” Renata said. “And for that alone, I think she just knows what it feels like to be in a situation that we were in that night. She cared about everybody finding out the truth. She read that article and because she connected with it on some level and thought ‘I need to find out what these women went through and I need the world to know what these women went though because they aren’t the only ones.’ We aren’t the only ones who have gone through this. We decided that night we wanted to fight back, and when we go around to different universities and things, people connect with us on that level also like, ‘Wow, I remember when this happened to me and I wish I would have fought back.’ We feel pushed up against a wall, like we don’t have a right to fight back. We do.”

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“We deal with that every day,” Venice said. “Especially when you are masculine-identified, you kind of deal with the criticism from men and the stereotypes from straight people—heterosexual women and men, kind of bashing, for lack of better terms. [blair] made sure people in every state and every country and from every walk of life, she made sure she gave them an opportunity to hear our story and make sure they have a complete understanding of what it is. Because again, the media had convicted us already, the jury had convicted us already, and we never had the opportunity to go to trial. We never had the opportunity to present the case and say ‘That didn’t happen!’ or ‘You’re wrong; that’s not what was said! This is exactly what happened.’ During the trial and the tape showing, they showed one tape where they show us defending ourselves but they never show the beginning when everything first happened when we were first attacked, when Renata was spit on and things like that.”

Out in the Night goes deep into the cases made against Patreese, Venice, Renata and Terrain, from their home lives in New Jersey to their friendships to the 2006 incident and the aftermath that ended up in prison sentences for all four. (The other three women were released because they pled guilty to a violent felony. The New Jersey Four refused to plead guilty.) When blair came on to start shooting, they were going in front of the Appellate Court, which led to Terrain’s conviction dismissal and release, Renata and Venice eventually accepting plea deals and Patreese’s 11 year sentence lowered to eight. (She received the most time for stabbing the man with a knife.) 

Despite this having happened almost a decade ago, not much has been done by the legal system to help women who are acting in self-defense. What Out in the Night does so well is show how these women were unfairly made guilty before anyone knew any facts about what actually happened. The media, the all-white jury, and the police only saw a group of black butch lesbians and deemed them a killer lesbian gang. blair said that it’s completely relevant to what’s happening in today’s Black Lives Matter movement.

“I think it very much is a part of the larger narrative and this case kind of expands what we’ve been seeing from the Black Lives Matter movement as being just black men killed by the police,” blair said. “I think it expands it to black women and to lesbian and queer women. I think that when we look at how Trayvon Martin had his blood tested for drugs and alcohol after he was murdered and there was all this discussion on George Zimmerman‘s face that he had clearly fought him, it was this immediate criminalizing of him instead of looking at him like he defended himself from a man who was stalking him. So I think likewise, the immediate arrest, immediate charges and media’s immediate response was very much in that line of thinking of criminalizing them before we know what happened.

“It’s also this not believing them because of how they look and I think that really—a lot of people get really hung up on the very specifics of this case that went wrong, but I don’t know that some of these things—had everything gone right in the trial, I don’t know that this would have happened different because they just weren’t believed and we just don’t value black women’s lives in this country,” she continued. “There’s too many women who are incarcerated for defending themselves against an attacker. And prior to the Rockefeller Drug Laws that are the majority of the women incarcerated were incarcerated for defending themselves against an abusive partner so there’s a long history of not believing women who physically fight back.”

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“As far as black women, black transgender people, and the black LGBT community, we don’t get as much coverage as black men,” Renata said. “We want to talk with Black Lives Matter and see how we can collaborate together.”

The women have different opinions on how things might have been different were they straight or maybe more feminine in appearance. Patreese, who is femme and petite, said she thinks they just walked by at the wrong time. 

“If we hadn’t walked by at that time, it would have been somebody else and it probably would have played out differently for them,” she said. “But I think he was just out there being an asshole that night.”

“I don’t think it probably would have been different if we were feminine women because the way he reacted once he found out that we were gay, I think it would have been the same reaction if we were feminine women—all of us feminine women and responded we were all gay too,” Venice said. “When he found out we were gay, it was like a switch went off in his head and he totally just went crazy, so I don’t think it would have mattered. He started with slurs. He looked at me and said ‘I’ll fuck you straight.’ He said he’d fuck all of his straight. He targeted us because we told him we were lesbians. If we would have never said that, we would have been right on to McDonalds like we’d been planning to do.”

“I think he was intimidated by those that were more masculine,” Renata said. “I feel, in my opinion, that if it was all feminine females, he wouldn’t have really pursued and I think maybe he felt like he had a point to prove. Because I turned him down for the entire group, like ‘On no, these are all my girlfriends’ and I think his ego was bruised. I think it would have been different if it was maybe just all femmes.”

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Whatever it was that upset the man enough to spit on Renata and verbally attack the group led to their convictions without the jury or general public ever having heard from their perspectives. Out in the Night, which has screened at over 90 festivals and universities has been successful in sharing their much-needed stories, but so far, blair said she thinks they might be preaching to the choir.

“I think that we have had a great response but I think it’s been people already interested in this story. So I’m kind of anxious to see how it’s going to be received after it airs on POV,” blair said. “But I’m still working on it full-time. We’re slowly moving into the outreach phase so we just keep moving it forward.” 

Now that the women are out of prison, they are happy to be working on that outreach and creating the much-needed dialogue surrounding their ordeal. 

“For me, the positive outcome of it we’ve been meeting a lot of good people,” Patreese said. “We’ve been getting a lot of positive responses from different universities and students, some people they hit us up and it feels good to kind of get our life back with the film, traveling and different people getting to see it from different point of views and not only what the newspapers were saying or what the DA was saying about us. Now is the opportunity where they get to figure it out for themselves and now we get to redeem ourselves and it definitely feels good.”

The kind of homophobia, racism and misogyny that played into the wrongful convictions of The New Jersey 4 is still alive and strong, and now is not only a time where self-defense should be recognized as a plausible option for women, but a completely necessary action. None of these women are advocating for violence; they were acting in self-defense, which is the case made in Out in the Night and supported by video footage and accounts from the night in question.

“You gotta defend yourself but I’m not saying go around and start trouble every time somebody says something to you and you jump on them—that’s not the message that we want to send,” Venice said. “We want to let you know to walk away but if it becomes a physical altercation, what do you do? You have to defend yourself. You have to protect yourself. You have to always, always protect yourself.”

Out in the Night airs on POV on PBS tonight at 10pm.

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