Perhaps the most resilient notion running through the centuries-long conflict between blackness and the law is the law’s idea the black body cannot be victimized. Blackness, inherently criminal, cannot be violated and is therefore neither worthy of protections of the law nor allowed to protect itself.
Factor in any sort of flouting of gender or heterosexist norms, and you have bodies not only at risk from racist actors, but from within blackness itself. The documentary Out in the Night is about black folk outside all protections. It fleshes out the notorious case of the New Jersey 4, the four young black lesbians who, in August 2006, defended themselves against assault from a homophobic street vendor. The assailant, a black man, was cast as victim by the police and media while the women were vilified in the press (“Attack of the Killer Lesbians,” screamed the New York Post) and railroaded by the court.
Director blair dorosh-walther employs crime scene video, court transcripts, and interviews with lawyers, the arresting officers, journalists, the family and friends of the women, and, of course, the women themselves. It’s all meticulously laid out, making the gross miscarriage of justice clear.
One woman was given a stiff sentence because the presiding judge said she’d given false testimony; when her lawyer pointed out that she actually hadn’t testified, the judge let the sentence stand.
The film is infuriating and depressing in equal measure, but it’s oddly inspiring because the quartet are, to a woman, all charming, funny, winning presences. That shouldn’t matter, of course, but it somehow underscores the raw deal they were handed.