‘Out in the Night’: The Case of the New Jersey 4

First, the women are black and second, they're lesbians, and once the term "gang" is applied by media and used by prosecutors, their legal charges become felonies.

“I was scared.” In August 2006, Renata Hill and six friends were arrested in the West Village. As she remembers it, they were walking outside the IFC Theater when a man accosted and then attacked them, leading to a fight when the women defended themselves. When police officers arrived on the scene, the man claimed the women assaulted him, at which point they were arrested, processed, and sent to Rikers Island, where they were locked in the fearsome BullPen, left to sleep on the floor.

The ordeal was “long, drawn out,” recounts Renata, “It was real scary.” As Patreese Johnson, 19 years old at the time, puts it, “We didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into.”

They couldn’t have known that they were headed into a legal nightmare, that the charges against them would be premised on other people’s fears, that their limited options would be shaped by sensational media coverage. That coverage and the trials are recalled in Out in the Night, screening at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival New York, 18 and 20 June. Each night is followed by a Q&A with filmmaker blair dorosh-walther and film subjects Hill, Johnson, Venice Brown, Terrain Dandridge, and Karen Thompson.

In tracing the confusions of that night and the chaos that came after, Out in the Night makes use of some familiar documentary elements. These include interviews with the New Jersey 4 (that is, the four members of the group who pled not guilty, and whose convictions and sentences raised public concerns about the legal cases), their family members and lawyers, experts and court transcripts.

The interviews provide contexts for Patreese, Renata, Terrain, and Venice, underlining the support of their mothers and siblings: “My mom’s out, we came out at the same time,” seated on a green park bench next to Terrain (“We like siblings”); prompted by an off-screen question, Renata laughs that Terrain came out “when she was, like, four!”

Even as the women — young, black, gay, and gender non-conforming — felt safe with each other and their families (“Being gay, in none of our families, is an issue”), as children they were also aware of basic risks in Newark. “It’s not a bad neighborhood to grow up in, but it’s impoverished,” observes Patreese’s brother Anthony, “You got drugs, you got guns, you got violence right here.”

Being young and black, they learned early that most institutions are not designed to “protect and serve” them. Patreese’s other brother was shot by a police officer when he was just 17, after which the officer “just went on about his business.” When her mother Dell adds, “It affected her negatively,” Patreese relates at least one lesson she learned: “It was like, I’m never calling 911 ever again.”

Here the film cuts to a resonant shot of black plastic bags caught in telephone wires, fluttering in the wind, a brief sign of the neighborhood’s neglect and poverty, and also the neglect and fear that extend throughout a broader American culture, replicated in stereotypes and rumors, disseminated not only by individuals but also, more insistently, in media.

Out in the Night goes on to show the many effects of such fear, what it means to feel perpetually scared of people who claim the right to act on their fears of you. It’s not just that the police look after their own or neglect to punish their own, but also that disrespect for some people’s lives is pervasive in the broader culture: black bodies are at risk everywhere, especially, as the film makes clear, “out In the night”.

The phrase circulates variously in the experiences of Renata, Patreese, Venice, and Terrain. When they discover what seems a haven in the West Village, they find friends and clubs and, a kind of tradition (“You got people 80 years old that’s gay,” Renata notes). Yet and still, they remain objects of fear for someone else. In 2006, what begins as an attack by one man on women who try to defend themselves is transformed, first by a series of headlines and then an absurd legal process, into an assault on him by a gang of “killer lesbians”, a “lesbian wolf pack”.

Out in the Night documents this trajectory with local TV reporters and Bill O’Reilly’s soundbites (“they were a lower socioeconomic crew”, lesbians “who just wanted to hurt people” ), as well as an interview with the New York Post‘s Laura Italiano, who says she stands by the “accuracy” of her phrase “seething Sapphic septet”, asserting, “I don’t think it was a stretch to say they were out for blood.” Set alongside the testimony of the alleged victim (a 29-year-old filmmaker and DVD vendor who declined to be interviewed for the film), Italiano’s interview is at once chilling and understandable, of a piece with the language and evidence allowed in the courtroom.

While footage from the IFC’s security cameras shows the DVD vendor’s initial attack on Renata and also that other men stepped in to defend the women, the framing of that imagery is key: prosecutors suggest the other men mean to help the alleged victim, and, while they can’t explain how the alleged victim appears to have his hands on Renata’s throat, choking her, they show photos of a sutured stomach, reportedly the result of a knife attack by Patreese.

The conflicts between testimonies and evidence accumulate. The judge nevertheless assesses harsh sentences. The film makes the alternate case that these conflicts are themselves functions of fear. First, the women are black and second, they’re lesbians, and once the term “gang” is applied by media and used by prosecutors, self-defense and misdemeanors become felonies.

Amid this spiraling disorder, with Renata and Patreese each sentenced to several years in prison, Out in the Night becomes not only a chronicle of their ordeals, but also those of their communities. Following a mother’s bus rides to visit her daughter, demonstrations to “Free the NJ4” or appellate lawyers detailing the errors in the original judgments, the film shows multiple, ongoing effects.

These stories continue to be entwined, for even as the individual women find their different legal pathways out of prison, the film underscores the dangers they still face and the resistance they have come to represent. Their cases demonstrate that it is, as FIERCE community organizer Glo Ross phrases it, “basically an arrestable offense to be queer, to be of color. You’re guilty just by having an identity.”

As much as this remains a scary reality, Out in the Night also argues for visibility, for being out, for claiming an identity and especially, the right to have that identity. If the court case in 2007 denied the right of self-defense to LGBT people of color, exposing that wrong, outing it, is and will be the most effective way to fight back.

RATING 9 / 10