On August 18, 2006 seven young black lesbians from Newark, New Jersey, went to New York City’s West Village, a gay and lesbian mecca, for a night of fun. Outside of a movie theater a black man named Dwayne Buckle verbally abused them with homophobic slurs after one rejected his sexual advances. They say he threw a lit cigarette and spit on the group. The altercation escalated: Buckle allegedly ripped out some of Venice Brown’s dredlocks and choked Renata Hill. Patreese Johnson, acting to defend her best friend, then stabbed him with a steak knife she was carrying for protection.
Local media pounced on the story calling the women a “gang of killer lesbians.” The four women in the group who refused to plead guilty for a reduced sentence–Brown, Hill, Johnson and Terrain Daindridge–ended up collectively serving 14 years in prison for charges ranging from gang assault to first-degree assault. The other three who took the plea didn’t serve any time.
Tonight, June 22, the cable channel LOGO and PBS stations will air the broadcast premiere of “Out in the Night,” a documentary about the women, who came to be known by activists as The New Jersey Four (The NJ4). The film follows them over a seven-year period, examining how race, gender and sexuality played into the sensational media coverage and the harsh sentencing in their case.
Colorlines spoke with director blair dorosh-walther, who spells her namee in lowercase letters, about the film via telephone. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why did you decide to make this film?
I initially heard about the assault pretty much the day after it happened. The [New York] Post, the [New York] Daily News and The New York Times all had articles the following day. I did not think initially that [I], a white director, should tell this story so I was an activist around the case for the first two years.
I remember seeing the headline “Man was stabbed after admiring a stranger.” It wasn’t in a tabloid paper [and it accompanied an article by] two female journalists. If the women had been white–if it were me and a group of my white friends [involved in this incident]–the outcome wouldn’t have been anything like the outcome in the courtroom or the media.
In 2008 as their appeals came around I started to rethink [my role].
How did you begin the process?
I approached the women, their families and their attorneys to see if there was interest in the documentary. I started this long interview process with the women–I was visiting them constantly. I wanted to make sure that they felt comfortable with me, so they were interviewing me for a while before we brought in cameras.
Can you say more about navigating being a white director?
Let’s say [even if] I did this story justice, I don’t know that I should ever tell another story of African-American women again. With these women we clicked and it made sense to move forward. I did talk to them about my reservations in getting started.
Even though we shot for seven years, I didn’t follow them around every day for long stretches of time. I don’t want to be this [white] voyeur following them around with the camera. I was very deliberate about where we shot and when the camera came out; they were incarcerated for years and that is a fucking traumatic experience.
Renata dealt with losing custody of her son and the death of her mother. Patreese lost her brother. And then they all had to to adjust to life after they got out. That takes a really long time. I do think you can be creative and strategic about what you shoot and not interrupt their lives.
Were other members of the film crew people of color?
Yes. It was really important to have a crew [that had people] of color and [people who were] LGBT. Yoruba Richen, one of my producers, is a black lesbian. It was important that this film not be told by only white filmmakers, but also that the women be comfortable with who was shooting.
My cinematographer, Daniel Patterson [who is black], he has been on the project since the very beginning. His mentor is Bradford Young who shot “Selma” and most of Ava DuVernay’s films.
What surprised you most about making this film?
I don’t know if there was anything that was necessarily shocking. I didn’t have too much faith in the criminal legal system prior. I did interview the judge, Edward J. McLaughlin, but he wouldn’t go on camera. I think the lack of [judicial] oversight is also just this insane thing. The appellate court is five judges and he is one of the judges who is constantly being cited for oversentencing and giving misinstruction to the jury.
The appellate court reviews every case that goes before them and they are constantly giving him a warning for doing these things and he just keeps doing them. We don’t have real oversight, there are no real repurcussions.
What was it like getting funding for the film?
Funding was difficult. The first grant I got was from Sundance, which was amazing, but I really thought it would be easier to get funding after that. I had funders tell me that they didn’t believe the women because they laughed too much and they didn’t cry. We did get significant funding but every grant I got, I applied three or four or five times.
Do you think the media portrayal of the case influenced the outcome?
I do. Jurors are human and I think that it’s a bit asinine to think that jurors aren’t going to look up cases. One of the jurors got thrown out mid-trial because he asked if he should take his kids out of the state for fear of gang retaliation.
I feel like I have to ask—what do you think about “Orange is the New Black”?
I have very complicated feelings about the show. [But] all of the women really like it. The exterior was filmed at Taconic Correctional Facility when Patreese was there and she really wanted to watch the show. I don’t think it really has much roots in reality. They touch on abuse by guards and they touch on being stripped of your humanity, but the show is a comedy but there is nothing comedic about being incarcerated or being in a cage. The show is more like being at a camp.
One of the things the women say is most inaccurate is the freedom of movement.
If this incident happened today, do you think the outcome would be any different?
I don’t think things would have unfolded differently. Maybe there would have been a bit more support for them, but I think it would have been the exact same thing.
Sometimes people ask me about very specific things in the trial that went wrong, but I don’t know that if things had been done differently the outcome would’ve been different. They weren’t believed. Because they are black, because they are women, because they are lesbians and gender non-conforming. The instinct is to not believe them, to not trust their voice. It’s all this criminalizing of the victim or the survivor because we don’t trust their voice.
Anything else you want to add?
I do also think that the women need to be honored for their resistance. They were a pocket of resistance on the street and when they pled not guilty in the courtroom. I really admire their resistance and their courage to stand up for themselves all the way through.
“Out in the Night” will air tonight at 10 p.m. on LOGO and POV (check local listings).