'Out in the Night' screens powerful message during Pride weekend at Duke


Duke students will have the opportunity to start their Pride weekend off this Friday with a dramatic look into the darker side of the American media and legal system.

“Out in the Night,” a film that will be screened at 6 p.m. in White Lecture Hall, tells the story of a group of young African American lesbians and their treatment by the mainstream media and the legal system. The group was out late one night in the West Village in August 2006 when a man began to violently harass and threaten them. Fearing for their safety, the group fought back and one girl pulled a knife. Strangers rushed to the girls’ aid, and the man sustained a puncture wound from the knife from the ensuing fight. The incident was captured by nearby security cameras, and the women were all charged with gang assault, assault and attempted murder.

Three of the women pleaded guilty, but Renata Hill, Patreese Johnson, Venice Brown and Terrain Dandridge claimed their innocence. These four were dubbed the “Gang of Killer Lesbians” by the media and the "New Jersey 4" by many activists. “Out in the Night” chronicles the story of the New Jersey 4, focusing particularly on Hill and Johnson.

The director of the film, blair dorosh-walther—who is gender non-conforming and uses both male and female pronouns—first heard about the story of the New Jersey 4 right after the fight took place, as headlines were immediately coming out from news sources like the New York Times and the New York Post.

“It was kind of a big thing in the larger LGBTQ community in New York. We were all talking about the coverage of it, not knowing exactly what had happened, but the headlines were so outrageous,” dorosh-walther said.

dorosh-walther originally had no intention of filming a documentary, and acted as an activist for the first two years following the incident. The director only began to rethink the documentary when the appeals of the trials started coming out. dorosh-walther found that the media attention had died down, and wanted to bring more attention to the injustice that was taking place.

While dorosh-walther stated that the target audience was, statistically, queer youth of color, the film also aims to reach the white LGBTQ community and call attention to the need for solidarity among the larger LGBTQ community as a whole. dorosh-walther said she had seen a lot of division in the community, particularly caused by the issue of gay marriage, which was being hotly debated when the film was released in 2014. She sought to bring more attention to criminal justice reform, as well as prove that gay marriage was just one of the many issues that needed to be discussed in the LGBTQ community.

dorosh-walther had difficulty choosing just one message that “Out in the Night” conveyed, but she stressed the importance of needing to have more complex conversations surrounding the issues discussed in the film, especially in regard to prison reform for both violent and nonviolent offenders.

Johnson, one of the New Jersey 4, and will also be coming to participate in the discussion following the screening of “Out in the Night.” She said she hopes that viewers will “take a little bit of the film and get out there and do something about it.”

Johnson said she is honored to have the opportunity to have a voice and advocate for change in showing the documentary and reaching out to youth.

“I try to educate the young people and let them know that it is important to be aware of the justice system and to be aware of your community and what is going on around you, because it will benefit you,” she said.

Although Johnson’s case happened seven years ago, she said she sees a lot of similarities between her case and situations taking place right now, particularly concerning how these cases are perceived by the media and the justice system.

“Our case opened up a lot of topics, and I hope that it continues to open up a conversation,” Johnson said. 

She hopes that these conversations will eventually lead to action and to laws that would help stop violence in the LGBTQ community and for black youth across the world.

Bernadette Brown, director of the Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity, hopes that students will take away a variety of important messages from the film, like the criminalization of the LGBTQ community, mass incarceration, and the power of the media to perpetuate stereotypes.

“I hope the students will understand that the very issue that was the genesis for the national LGBTQ movement—the criminalization of the LGBTQ community—continues to be a huge problem,” Brown said.

She hopes the film will spur students to think about a number of issues relating to mass incarceration and the LGBTQ community, including the targeting and harassment of black lesbians in particular, as well as racism, heterosexism and cissexism in the cisgender women’s rights movement.  

This screening of “Out In The Night” allows students to have a unique opportunity to discuss complex issues in a setting they might not find openly on campus.

“I think we need to be able to talk about the complicated situations, not just the easy ones," dorosh-walther said. "That’s where change can happen: when we talk about the complicated issues and their complexities."


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