The most intriguing line in "Out in the Night" initially sounds like a throwaway: "You would have thought it was a movie."
The mother of one of the women known as the New Jersey 4 is recalling the moment when her daughter’s guilty verdict was read aloud in court, her words evoking the unreality of the situation and the ways in which we turn to something familiar — whether experienced firsthand or, in this case, onscreen — when processing information that seems impossible to believe.
Late one night in 2006, four women from Newark were walking through New York’s West Village. Though exactly what happened next remains a matter of dispute even now, what’s clear is that a man standing in front of IFC Center made a lewd remark, the women balked at his unwanted advance by telling him that they were gay, and a fight broke out. He ended up in the hospital, the women in jail. That a brawl took place in front of an art-house theater in the small hours of the night, was captured via grainy security footage, and picked apart frame-by-frame in a court of law represents a collision between objective and subjective truth that would delight Errol Morris.
The film that was eventually made about it, however, leaves something to be desired.
The media sensationalism and questionable verdicts that followed the incident were depressingly familiar. "Attack of the Killer Lesbians," read one headline, which was hardly an outlier; every single news report the filmmakers excerpt contains a mention of the defendants’ sexual orientation in either the headline, first sentence, or both. (Such modifiers as "tough as nails" and "wolf pack" were thrown in lest readers get the impression that four black lesbians could be anything but scary and butch.) That several of these articles insinuated that the incident amounted to some sort of reverse gay-bashing while painting the defendants in broad, reductive strokes is an irony apparently lost on the writers.
blair dorosh-walther’s documentary is of the opinion that the New Jersey 4 were wrongfully convicted, but it’s just as focused on the preconceived notions and media climate that made them guilty until proven innocent. The dignified outrage at the center of "Out in the Night" always feels justified, albeit expressed in a manner we’ve come to expect from social-justice docs.
The irony is that, in setting out to exonerate the women rather than take a step back from the situation as a whole and try to understand it objectively — something the similarly conceived “Paradise Lost” movies do extremely well — "Out in the Night" feels just as biased as the news reports for which it’s meant to serve as a corrective. Its conclusions are far more convincing, its intentions more noble, but the case it’s making is strong enough to shine through on its own without editorializing.
The film eventually expands to focus on the plight of black and/or homosexual victims of violent crime in particular and the justice system in general, including Sakia Gunn, Trayvon Martin, and Marissa Alexander. This brief foray into other notable cases is the crux of the movie’s attempt to cover more ground than its 75 minutes can reasonably cover. The incident itself is deconstructed comprehensively, but the ensuing trial, prison sentences, retrials, and releases over the course of the next several years are addressed upon with too quick and light a touch to feel like much more like an informational recap.
There’s potential for a rich, dense exploration of these women’s lives — and even the neighborhood from which they hail, which could serve as the subject of a film unto itself — but we only catch a glimpse of it. "The media doesn’t tell the whole story," says one interviewee. It’s hard to escape the feeling that "Out in the Night" doesn’t either.
"Out in the Night" premiered this week at the L.A. Film Fest and next screens at the IFC Center on June 18. It does not currently have U.S. distribution.