A disturbing documentary, airing this week on PBS, chronicles an incident that occurred in August 2006. It’s not journalism. It was shot only from the point of view of the perpetrators — lesbians imprisoned for their “crime.” We do not hear from their accuser, his attorney or the judge. But the film sheds light on decade old attitudes that cause us to consider whether much has changed.
By Maddie Orton
Headlines read “Attack of the Killer Lesbians” and “Girls Gone Wilding.” But the true story of seven Newark women harassed in the West Village almost a decade ago is one of race, class, gender, sexual identity and, above all, the justice system. It’s also the subject of the documentary Out in the Night.
“The timing, with everything going on in our society, I think it’s a perfect time to explain and expose what happened to us,” says one subject of the documentary, Terrain Dandridge.
What happened is this: In 2006, Dandrich, Patreese Johnson and five other friends, all gay women, spent a night out in the West Village — a destination chosen for its gay-friendly environment.
The women say that, around 1:40 a.m., a man approached them asking Johnson if he could “get some of that.” She thought he may have been referring to her friend’s soda.
“I’m thinking he’s homeless, can you just give the man a soda so he can leave us alone,” says Johnson. “And he was like, ‘I don’t want none of that’ and he pointed at my crotch and said, ‘I want some of that!’ And I kind of laughed it off and said, ‘Oh no, I’m gay.’”
The women allege that he began shouting gay slurs and threats. They say he became violent and the friends fought him off and walked away. But one woman went back, and that’s when things escalated.
Johnson says in the film: “Well, if you’re standing there and you’re just watching the man beat on one of your friends, then he turns around and hits you, you have a right to defend yourself… Yes, I did pull my knife out, and I did because you couldn’t tell me my best friend wasn’t about to die.”
Four-foot-eleven Johnson pulled the knife her brother told her to carry for safety and stabbed the man in the abdomen. He was taken to the hospital, and they were taken to Riker’s.
Documentary Director blair dorosh-walther was immediately interested in the case.
“I was an activist for two years on the case,” says dorosh-walther. “My background’s in film, but I initially didn’t think that a white director should tell this story.”
Three women took a plea deal and the other four pled not guilty and went to trial. They were convicted. As the appeals process began, Dorosh-Walther asked to take on the project.
The documentary presents evidence to viewers as it was presented at trial, to better explain why various verdicts were reached. But information not presented at trial is also revealed.
“[It] doesn’t matter what audience, everyone is like [gasp],” dorosh-walther says.
The media plays a large role in the film — just as Johnson and Dandridge feel it did in the public’s perception of the case.
A clip from The O’Reilly Factor appears in the documentary with Bill O’Reilly saying: “Here in New York City, a group of lesbians attacked a guy last August… In Tennessee, authorities say a lesbian gang called GTO, Gays Taking Over, are involved in raping young girls.”
“It’s outrageous,” says Johnson. “You just can’t make this stuff up.”
“But it was really the New York Times article entitled ‘Man is Stabbed [in Attack] After Admiring a Stranger‘ that got me,” says dorosh-walther. “That, to me, was just so crazy because a man doesn’t ‘admire’ a woman at three o’clock in the morning on the street.”
The documentary raises questions about gender, sexual identity and racial biases in the judicial system and in the language used in media coverage.
“It was very animalistic. It was dehumanizing them, using words like ‘wolf pack’ and ‘seething’ and ‘bloodthirsty,'” says dorosh-walther. “‘Bloodthirsty’ is something that you would maybe [use to describe] a werewolf.”
“This is my life we’re talking about,” says Johnson. “And you used it just to have your paper selling.”
Released from prison and rebuilding their lives, the women say participating in the documentary was therapeutic for them. But above all, they hope the film becomes a catalyst for change.