Out in the Night: New York City’s racism and anti-gay bias plays out on screen
In August 2006, four black lesbians went out for night of fun but what they got was a conviction for fighting back against an attacker. They finally tell their side
Adrian Margaret Brune
Monday 27 April 2015 15.34 EDT
Ilike to go to the Village because it’s nothing but gay people. It’s a safe haven for us. You got old, Chinese gay people, like people I never thought would be gay,” says Renata Hill, one of a group of New Jersey lesbians who star in new documentary Out in the Night. “You go to New York, it’s normal. Like, nobody’s not going to look at you any different.”
“That’s not true. That’s what happened to us,” replies Hill’s friend Terrain Dandridge, referencing the evening in August 2006 that forever changed the lives of Hill, Dandridge and two of their friends.
Out in the Night puts the racism and anti-gay bias of the New York criminal justice system in full-view, by following the lives of four black lesbians from Newark, who came to the West Village in August 2006 to “bar hop” and “girl shop”, and wound up in jail for defending themselves against gay bashing. Eight years later, three of the four friends who became known as the New Jersey Four for their dissidence, reunited once more following prison, appeals, eventual release and parole. Renata Hill, Patreese Johnson and Terrain Dandridge arrived on the 15th floor screening room with its floor-to-ceiling skyscape of the city and hugged their supporters, took selfies against views of the Empire State building, signed posters and talked about that summer evening.
“There are not enough pre-release programs in the world to prepare you for what we went through, but someone should have stepped in and said ‘This is what you’re up against,’” Hill said over drinks in Times Square before participating in a panel discussion that followed the screening. “We kept thinking, ‘damn, when are we going to get our second chance’ – our chance to show people that we’re not guilty of the things we were accused of?”
Shown nearly 80 times at international film festivals and college campuses since its Human Rights Watch film festival debut last June, Out in the Night kicks off the 2015 season of PBS’s independent documentary series POV (Point-of-View) in June. The United Nations’ Free & Equal campaign recently chose the documentary – the first feature by Blair Dorosh-Walther, who started shooting just after finishing her NYU undergraduate degree in film – for its Global Film Series, which aims to decriminalize homosexuality worldwide.
And although the film has largely been cited by gay rights advocates for depicting the problem of harassment toward gay women, it has strongly resonated with the black community, especially LGBT people of color, for its unveiling of blatant prejudice by police, prosecutors and judges, even in one of the country’s most tolerant cities.
“I didn’t even think that race had anything to do with it until some people in jail kept saying we were discriminated against because we were black,” Johnson said. “They kept saying that the cops were biased, the trial was biased, that we wouldn’t be in this situation if we had been white girls.”
Hill added that it took some significant thought – and trust – before the women agreed to have Dorosh-Walther make the documentary. “It’s not like we said, ‘Hey, welcome to our lives, just go ahead and start filming.’ But nobody came to us to get our side of the story – black or white – and if Blair hadn’t, we wouldn’t have our side of the story told.”
The film essentially begins with footage shot on four cameras placed around the IFC Film Center, where, as the four women made their way to Christopher Street, 28-year-old Dwayne Buckle began taunting and harassing them after one told him she was gay. A fight breaks out. Four minutes later, it ends. Both parties walk away, with busted lips and swollen faces. Then, following a 911 call placed by a bystander, the New York police department descends.
The next day, in headlines just as stark as those announcing the grand jury’s refusal to indict two police officers in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner last fall, the New York press incriminated the New Jersey Four for the stabbing of Buckle. The more genteel New York Times downplayed the incident with its article “Man is Stabbed in Attack After Admiring a Stranger” over the Post’s headline “Girl Gang Stabs Would-be Romeo” and Daily News’s “Girls Gone Wilding”.
The New York district attorney’s office charged the group of lesbians with gang assault, assault and attempted murder following Buckle’s hospitalization with a small stab wound in the stomach, allegedly inflicted by Johnson, whose older brothers encouraged her to carry a knife in Newark for protection. Although they faced 25-year sentences, Hill, Dandridge, Johnson, and their friend, Venice Brown, fought the felony charges, claiming self-defense against a hate crime.
“If you’re standing there and just watching a man beating on one of your friends and then you turn around and he hits you, you have a right to defend yourself.” Johnson said. New York supreme court justice Edward McLaughlin, who has presided over a steady stream of gang assault trials in his career, disagreed. After they were found guilty, he sentenced the women to prison terms of three to 11 years – Johnson received the lengthiest.
Out in the Night also brings forth key evidence not presented during the original trial, including camera shots showing Buckle ripping the dreadlocks out of Brown’s head, a photograph of the scar on Buckle’s stomach presented during the trial – a trauma incurred during from elective gallbladder surgery, not the stabbing – and finally, a follow-up call from 911 to the police, during which an officer on the scene told the operator that the incident was “all nonsense”.
Now that all four women are free, they face society as convicted felons. “Housing, they’ve denied us that; assistance, they’ve denied us that; and you can only get a job from someone who knows someone who knows someone,” Hill said. She just recently found a permanent home with her son after two years in the shelter system. “Not only is it a felony, it’s a gang-related felony and nobody wants that,” she said. Additionally, Buckle has sued each of the New Jersey Four for damages.
Yet, all remain determined to persevere. Hill, Dandridge and Johnson are in school and touring with Dorosh-Walther to speak about their adversity and overcoming it – when they are allowed by parole officers to leave the New York area. Hill, who says she wants to become a social worker, hands out business cards with a rainbow heart on them and her contact information, in which “NJ4” and Out in the Night figure prominently.
Although, Johnson said she “discovered the world got meaner” in prison, she and the others have decided to “reclaim” their future. They even attended the HRW Festival at the IFC theater where “it took four minutes to turn our lives upside down,” Hill said. “But it only took 74 minutes for us to take them back.”