When seven young African-American women were arrested on Aug. 18, 2006, I immediately became interested in their case. I read the many salacious headlines: "Attack of the Killer Lesbians," "Guilty Gal Gang Weepy Women," "'I'm a Man!' Lesbian Growled During Fight" and on and on. However, it was the first of many New York Times articles about the case that really gave me pause. The headline read, "Man Is Stabbed in Attack After Admiring a Stranger." Admiring?? I really could not believe it. A man does not "admire" young women on the street at midnight. That is harassment. I have never met a woman who hasn't been harassed on the street at some point in her life, and in New York City harassment is especially commonplace.
A blog was created as a community space for people to discuss what was happening in those headlines and news articles. I attended a community meeting at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center in New York City's West Village. The conversation wasn't about what happened that night, as it was early and nobody knew the details. Instead, people were focused on these questions: How do we protect ourselves when we feel threatened? Who amongst us feels comfortable calling the police? and How do we combat media bias?
I believe this story would have unfolded differently had the women and gender non-conforming youth involved been white. Race and class, as well as gender and sexuality, were and remain critical issues in this case.
Though my background is in film, originally, I did not think a white director such as myself should tell this story. So, for the next two years I worked on this case as a part-time activist.
Three of the seven women pleaded guilty to avoid a trial, but the remaining four — Renata, Patreese, Venice and Terrain — maintained their innocence and were found guilty of various charges. Two years later, however, as their appeals were approaching, I could not stop thinking about this story. By then, the media attention had almost completely died down. I wrote to each of the women in prison and asked if I could come visit her and discuss the possibility of a documentary. We began a long process of interviewing each other off camera and getting to know one another. I did not want to direct this film if they were not going to be comfortable with me as the director. I also began speaking with their families and appellate lawyers to get a better handle on the case.
As the women and I developed a relationship and I was beginning to understand the intricacies of the case and the appeals, I was also mapping out how to tell this story. Within a few months of our deciding to make this film, Renata and Terrain, two of the four women, came home from prison. It was then that we really began to get to know each other. On the day of my first full interview with them on camera, Terrain and I were going to run out to pick up food for lunch, leaving my director of photography, Daniel Patterson, and Renata at Terrain's house. Renata became nervous immediately when she heard our plan. She said she didn't want to be left there with a "strange dude." In that moment I realized how she is impacted by tremendous trauma from sexual violence and violent actions against her by men since childhood. It made me better understand her reaction on the night of the fight. I asked her to sit behind the camera and interview Daniel to get to know him. They became close after that.
Since conducting those early interviews, I have written dozens and dozens and dozens of grant applications. And I lost track of how many times I was turned down by a potential funder who claimed that these women weren't believable because they laughed too much or didn't cry on camera. When I got these responses, I always thought back to that first day of interviews. If those funders only understood the fears that were hidden behind the women's humor and confidence. It informed my choices about how to express their personalities, going beyond stereotypes and one-dimensional portrayals, projecting them from the screen into the hearts of audience members.
One of the reasons this story feels so important to me is that it touches on intersectional identity, something mainstream news media does not often acknowledge. These young friends, being black, conjured up stereotypes of what a gang looks like. The gang assault charge is disproportionately used against young men of color. This is where gender identity stereotypes become so powerfully oppressive. Most of the images used to illustrate reporting about this case were of Terrain. Terrain could potentially pass as male. So, when using her photo with the word "gang" in the headline, newspapers supported that association. Even now, though Terrain is the only one of the seven women without a felony on her record and her charges have been dismissed, her picture continues to be used. These images, as well as misquotes in headlines like "'I'm a Man!' Lesbian Growled During Fight" were used to deny that they were women or to deny them as human beings worthy of public sympathy. Women using physical force to fight back has never been socially acceptable.
Even though each of these women has a great sense of gender identity, that aspect of the story didn't really make it into the film as strongly as I had once hoped. Way too often in the mainstream, LGBTQ rights are spoken about through marriage equality. Gender identity blends with sexuality as if they were one and the same. But the women's gender identities did play a role in this story, particularly in the way they were represented in the media. Terrain and Renata identify as AG or aggressive, meaning (as a general simplification) a masculine-identified woman or a person to the masculine side of center. Venice and Patreese identify as femme. Venice says, "An AG is someone who is comfortable in their skin."
So, as we move beyond treating marriage equality as the central LGBTQ issue, their experiences reveal so many other issues that need to be addressed: Feeling safe on the street. In any town, in any city.
The right to defend yourself without fear of imprisonment. Trust in calling the police when you are threatened. And representations of spectrums of gender that aren't neatly "male" or "female."
I deeply believe that arguing for self-defense often does not work for the very people it should protect. In this case, context was missing in the courtroom and in the mainstream news. I want people to understand that Renata was never given the full care and support she needed as a child survivor of sexual abuse and torture. Her rapist, who began sexually assaulting her when she was 9 and continued until she was 16 years old, was given less time in prison than Renata received for defending herself against a sexual threat. The man who threatened her that night said he would "f*** her straight." In her eyes, he said that he would rape her. I want people to understand how PTSD from sexual trauma impacts the way a person responds to a sexually violent threat. Similarly, Patreese's history with police brutality helped inform her actions. She couldn't call 911 for help; that was not an option. Additionally, the story of Sakia Gunn was not introduced in the courtroom, though the women were familiar with it and it had to have been on their minds. In 2003, Gunn, an African-American 15-year-old masculine-identified woman, was at the Newark train station, returning from the West Village, when a man approached her. Gunn said she was a lesbian, and the man stabbed her to death. In support of self-defense, a woman's history, her experiences and her reality need to be given full weight in the courtroom proceedings (assuming the defendant is interested in sharing).
I want discussions to go deeper. This case is not cut and dried, as the women defended themselves with force. It is messy and complicated. We need to be prepared to talk about the gray areas.
My approach to filmmaking is both political and practical. I very much identify as an anarchist. Oddly, the act of making an independent film feels like the truest way for me to live that out in my career. When filmmaking works correctly, it is about a small, passionate and dedicated group of people governing equally. We work equally in our specific roles for a common and shared vision. I love that part of filmmaking.
As a developing artist, I originally found my creative voice in the abstraction of painting and sculpture. But I did not continue in fine arts because of that very abstraction. I want access to meaning and justice to be more transparent. In my other life in social services and activism, I've paid attention to those things. Filmmaking — visual storytelling — merges these two parts of me, art and activism, in a way that feels whole.
— blair dorosh-walther, Director/Producer