Rochester film festival confronts sexuality, racial issues with stirring documentary

Out in the Night is about violence––where it begins, what it looks like, how it happens and the stories that we tell about it. Screened on Oct. 11 at the Little Theater in Rochester as part of the city’s LGBT film and video festival ImageOut, Out in the Night is an incredibly powerful documentary by director and producer Blair Doroshwalther. Out in the Night tells the story of the “New Jersey Four,” a group of young, black lesbian women from New Jersey who were harshly convicted for defending themselves against a targeted attack that took place in New York City in August 2006.

The film deals with the ways in which misogyny, homophobia and racism function together as forces of oppression and emphasizes the necessity of working simultaneously against all three. Labeled a “gang assault” by the justice system and “Attack of the Killer Lesbians” by the media, the story of the “New Jersey Four” challenges the idea of living in a post-racial, colorblind society.

While the media and the trial focused solely on the violence of that one night, the film takes a nuanced look at the various forms of violence within the case. The film examines the violence of gay-bashing and sexual harassment that happens daily even in supposed “gay-friendly” cities and neighborhoods. In addition, it depicts the violence of a culture that routinely criminalizes the bodies and existences of LGBTQ-plus people and people of color and the violence of a legal system that sentenced “New Jersey Four” member Renata Hill to more prison time than the man who serially raped her as a child.

After watching the film, all confidence in the ability of the criminal justice system to sort through all these layers of violence disappears. Instead, the film asks us to consider the possibility of community-based alternatives to policing and incarceration.

Out in the Night also explores the complex terrain of self-defense. It discusses who is granted the right to self-defense and who, as activist and writer Mariame Kaba puts it, is seen as having “no selves to defend.” In the film, activist and scholar Angela Davis argues, “You either ascent to the homophobia of everyday culture, or you figure out a way to speak out, to resist.”

At the ImageOut screening, three out of the four who were convicted—Renata Hill, Terrain Dandridge and Patreese Johnson—were in attendance and fielded questions from the audience. They discussed their lives after prison and possible steps forward in combating the injustices that they and other LGBTQ-plus individuals experience.

Although the film ends with a reduction in their sentences and a release from prison, the fact remains that these women spent several years of their lives behind bars and continue to face difficulty in finding employment because of their criminal records. They may be out of prison, but they are not entirely free.

Awarded with the Special Documentary Jury Prize for Courage in Storytelling by ImageOut, Out in the Night is a moving and essential film. Although difficult and potentially triggering to watch, this film’s story is one that needs to be told.