As a heterosexual white woman who grew up in an affluent neighborhood where being openly gay would have been anything but an issue; as a woman of Long Beach, a city whose support for the LGBTQ community is a widely accepted, fearless and public endeavor, I simply feel small in attempting to do a film like Out in the Night proper justice. As I rack my brain for some type of meager connection from my own life that will help me write this piece without sounding ignorant, I cannot find a thing.
But that’s why films like Out in the Night are so important for the viewers who have no idea what it’s like to feel like you can’t trust the police, for those in the audience who haven’t a clue what it’s like to have their lawful rights dismissed because of sexual orientation, gender and skin color. Out in the Night, directed and produced by blair dorosh-walther, tells the story of the New Jersey 4 (NJ4), a close-knit group of openly gay black women from Newark, New Jersey who were forced to defend themselves against a man with misogynistic and homophobic intentions.
On August 18, 2006 Venice Brown, Renata Hill, Patreese Johnson, Terrain Dandridge and three other women entered into a verbal-turned-violent altercation with Dwayne Buckle (who would not be interviewed), a DVD vendor selling his wares on the street. As the women walked by him, passing the Independent Film Cinema in Greenwich Village, NY, Buckle sexually propositioned them, only to be denied, as they continued walking past. Buckle then began yelling anti-lesbian slurs; he followed them down the sidewalk, threw a lit cigarette and spat in their faces.
The group of women fought back. Only when the embroilment heightened to the point of Buckle having his hands around one of their throats did Johnson pull out a small steak knife to defend the woman’s life. Aiming for his arm, she punctured Buckle’s stomach, leaving a minor laceration that Buckle hardly noticed amongst the chaos. The three women whose names are not mentioned pled guilty and walked away, while Brown, Hill, Johnson and Dandridge, faced 25 years in prison. The four knew in their hearts that what they had done was not a crime, but a completely justified response to an attack on their identities, God-given rights and their lives. The NJ4 pled guilty to a violent felony and were incarcerated for varying lengths of time.
Johnson was sentenced to 11 years in prison. “If you’re standing there, just watching a man beat on one of your friends, and then he turns around and hits you, you have a right to defend yourself,” said Johnson during one of several interviews shown during the film. You cannot help but feel her powerlessness as you listen to the monotone voice, the voice of a woman trying to swim upstream against a media-fueled judicial wave of negligence.
Sitting in a chair in her prison uniform, Johnson explains that her time behind bars has prompted her to reconsider carrying a defensive weapon. Although, as her audience, I felt conflicted. As a petite young woman, Johnson was encouraged by her brothers to carry a small knife at all times because otherwise, how could she defend herself if caught alone in a vulnerable position? When it came to saving her friend’s life, she was incarcerated unfairly based not on what had actually transpired during the incident, but on who she was as a person.
The media had a frenzy with the news about the brawl and introduced the women to the public with headlines such as “Lesbian gang-stab shocker” and “Attack of the Killer Lesbians.” Reva McEachern of the New Jersey Star-Ledger explains the larger implications of the NJ4’s sentences as well as how the media responded to the incident. “If you’re a black person you don’t have the right to defend yourself. You are on guard because everyone around you perceives you as a threat before they know anything about you,” McEachern said.
Out in the Night shows its viewers what it means to carry one of the most stepped-on, misjudged and misunderstood identities of our society today and just how much influence the media can have on the lives of these women. The film shows that since 2006, things have changed and are still changing for the better, with Newark building its first LGBTQ Community Center this year and all of the NJ4 out of prison and living full lives; however the viewer cannot help but partially feel the desperation, the stress, the helplessness and the absolute unfairness dealt with by the NJ4, their families and their close-knit communities.
Out in the Night will show at the 2014 QFilm Festival, which will be held September 12 through September 14 at the Art Theatre and LGBTQ Center, both located on 4th Street between Cherry and St. Louis Avenues. For more information, click here.