“Attack of the Killer Lesbians.” No, that’s not the title of a tacky exploitation movie, but rather an example of the egregious tabloid headlines that marked the reporting of the case of the “New Jersey Four,” the subject of Blair Dorosh-Walther’s film, which is receiving its world premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Recounting the story of four gay black women who were sentenced to egregiously long prison sentences after engaging in a violent altercation with a man who had verbally and physically harassed them in New York’s Greenwich Village, Out in the Night is an impassioned documentary that examines the case from a social and humanistic perspective.
The incident occurred on a summer night in 2006, when seven lesbian friends from Newark went to New York City, ironically to escape the sexist taunts they often were met with on the streets of their hometown. Walking in front of the IFC Center movie theater, they were verbally accosted by 29-year Dwayne Buckle, responding to his leering taunts by informing him that they were gay. His verbal abuse continued — he threatened to “f— them straight,” among other things — and it ultimately escalated into a brawl in which one of the women stabbed him in the stomach. During the confusing melee, two male passersby also got involved but left the scene before police arrived.
The seven women were arrested and charged with a wide variety of crimes, including gang assault and attempted murder. Three of them pled guilty and were given reduced sentences, while the others went to trial claiming self-defense and received prison sentences ranging from 3½ to 11 years.
The case incited frenzied media attention, with the defendants labeled as a “gang” and described as, among other things, a “lesbian wolf pack” and “killer lesbians.” The case became a cause celebre among the gay and lesbian community, who argued that the women had been unfairly treated because of their race and sexuality, with Angela Davis publicly wondering if the women would have been treated differently if they were white.
The film is not exactly balanced in its approach, hampered by the fact that both the judge and the prosecutor declined to be interviewed. Buckle also refused to participate, although portions of his trial testimony are recited by an actor. One of the police officers involved points out the “gang” label resulted not from the women actually having any gang affiliation, but rather from the legal definition involving three or more persons participating in a violent assault. We also see grainy security camera footage of the brief event — it lasted approximately four minutes — that seems to bear out the women’s version.
Concentrating largely on the four women involved, with a particular emphasis on Patreese Johnson, the one who did the stabbing and received the longest prison sentence, the film is not always successful in clearly delineating the lengthy legal process that ensued. And it tends to overreach in its attempt to link the case to a broader examination of gender issues. But it does offer plenty of food for thought about the influence of biased media coverage on an already prejudicial legal system.
Production: The Fire This Time The Film LLC, Independent Television Service (ITVS)
Director-screenwriter: Blair Dorosh-Walther
Producers: Giovanna Chesler, Mridu Chandra, Yoruba Richen
Executive producer: Abigail E. Disney
Director of photography: Daniel Patterson
Editor: Kristen Huntley
Composer: Mario Grigorov
No rating, 74 minutes