Professor’s Film Examines Infamous New York Crime and Case

Posted: June 30, 2014 at 5:01 am, Last Updated: July 17, 2014 at 9:18 am

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By Justin Lafreniere

Giovanna Chesler

Giovanna Chesler

A new documentary produced by George Mason University professor Giovanna Chesler examines an infamous night out and trial in New York that sent four black women, accused of being part of a lesbian gang, to prison.

Out in the Night” tells the stories of Patreese Johnson, Renata Hill, Terrain Hill and Venice Brown, and the implications and results of an August night in 2006 when a man verbally accosted and sexually harassed them. A fight ensued; the man was stabbed, and soon after, the New York Police Department arrested seven women. The film premiered this month at film festivals in Los Angeles and New York.

Chesler, associate professor of communication and director of George Mason’s Film and Video Studies Program, sees the film as an access point to discussions on race, gender and sexuality through the women’s’ intersectional identities. Who these women were and how they identified themselves were at the crux of the altercation and how they were portrayed in the media. “It was a perfect storm for how their case played out,” says director blair dorosh-walther.

The women were charged with a variety of crimes, including gang assault. While the case played out in a courtroom, the media held a trial of its own for the women. They referred to them as “a wolf pack,” and “a gang of killer lesbians.” The New York Post ran the headline, “Attack of the Killer Lesbians” and referred to the women as “seven bloodthirsty young lesbians,” and “a seething Sapphic septet from Newark, N.J.”

The documentary "Out in the Night" premiered this month at film festivals in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

The documentary “Out in the Night” premiered this month at film festivals in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

The film uses subtle animation, interviews and court records to dissect the case and follow the appeals that eventually saw the four women released under various circumstances, including Patreese Johnson’s early release by an appellate court decision stating that her freedom was “in the interest of justice.”

Chesler joined the film four years after dorosh-walther began it, and she has served as its producer for three years. The two of them have been invited to numerous film festivals and screenings to share the documentary. In addition to screenings at the Los Angeles Film Festival, the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York, and Frameline, the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival, they have been invited to participate in the United Nations Free and Equal Campaign, which will show the film at 77 United Nations sites around the world.

After meeting dorosh-walther at a queer filmmaking workshop, Chesler says she knew she had to be involved with the film, then called “The Fire This Time,” despite never having heard the story of the New Jersey Four, as the women became known. “I had been developing several feature fiction projects, but I set those aside so I could work with [dorosh-walther] on this, centrally,” Chesler says.

The film relied on funding provided by more than 10 film and non-film organizations, including the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. A shorter, broadcast version of the documentary will run in 2015, nine years after the fight. Funding was also supplied by the Sundance Film Institute and the New York State Council for the Arts, among others. A Kickstarter crowd-funding campaign raised nearly $27,000. “We had 500 donors. People wanted to act,” says dorosh-walther, who estimates as much as 200 hours of film was shot for the movie. It is her first feature-length production. Chesler’s previous filmography includes the award-winning “Bye Bi Love” and “Period: The End of Menstruation.”

Since joining Mason, Chesler has been impressed with its breadth of programs and the university’s dedication to exposing students to a variety of films and filmmakers. “This year, in the Film and Visual Studies program, we were focused on the power of film,” Chesler says, “both in its impact on audiences, and the systems of power within the industry that have marginalized female and transgender filmmakers, and filmmakers of color.” Screenings and events over the past academic year have included showings of the “The New Black” and a master class with cinematographer Daniel Patterson.

“Out in the Night” will come to campus for a screening on October 29, and will be hosted by the Film and Media Studies and African and African American Studies programs, continuing a trend of screenings Chesler says is fundamentally important. “Each year, we will continue to highlight the work of a range of filmmakers—moving beyond the ‘traditional’ film canon.”

“Out in the Night” certainly represents that. Discussion guides are being made to accompany the film. “We wanted this film to become a discussion tool,” dorosh-walther says.

“The most important message in the film,” Chesler says, “is about self-defense. Not everyone has the right to defend themselves. The case highlights who has a right to defend themselves and how a person’s race or gender identity influences the criminal justice system.”

Write to Colleen Kearney Rich at ckearney@gmu.edu

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