Quite possibly the jewel in this Festival’s crown, Blair Dorosh-Walther’s tough and compassionate documentary chronicles the experiences of four black lesbians engaged in a long and bitter tussle with the American justice system and the media, which incarcerated and demonised them respectively for a crime they did not commit. Despite numerous CCTV cameras constantly surveying the small patch of concrete outside a New York cinema, the quartet were tried and put away for the stabbing of a young black male: the provoker who was painted by the media as a blameless victim.
It’s fairly conventional in its structure: simple and chronological, interweaving talking-head interviews (with the four women, with the people who knew them, and with those legally involved in the case – at least, those who consented to be interviewed) with CCTV footage and newspaper clippings. There is no voiceover, though there are intertitles, and Dorosh-Walther is keen to reveal to the viewer just how easy it is to be hoodwinked.
The coup she uses to achieve this is magnificent. Halfway through the film, we see a medical photograph of the knife victim’s abdominal scars – one huge one down the middle, stitched up, and one off to the left. We all automatically assume that the knife wound is the big one; after all, it’s taken all four girls to prison, right? Wrong. Near the end, we see the image again, this time with annotations. The big wound: an “exploratory surgical incision”. The little scar on the left: the stab wound. It’s a highly effective piece of structuring that slaps us into realising that there are few foregone conclusions in life.
Angry, poignant moments abound. The montage of savage, unrestrained newspaper headlines is to be expected, but we are also repeatedly reminded of the gendered nature of the American justice system. One of the four girls was raped when she was nine; her rapist got five years. She got eight for a crime she didn’t commit – a crime caught on CCTV footage that shows that the knife wielded by one of the girls, Patreese, went nowhere near the victim’s abdomen. The true culprit appears to have been a mysterious man in a pink shirt, who is seen bearing down heavily on the stab victim. Not that this had any impact on the case: Patreese still served four more years than her friends did, spending a total of seven and a half years in the can.
The cost of jailtime is explored with a deft and sometimes humorous touch: one of the girls complains, “I miss boxers; these panties are painful”, inducing a wry smile as well as chagrin at the constrictively gendered sartorial conformity inescapable in prison. Naturally, the jailtime means more than underwear and liberty are missed: Renata’s mother died while her daughter was in prison, pushing Renata to the brink of depression and into the emotional chasm that led her to self-harm. She appealed, and eventually won, but those are two years of her life she’s never getting back; despite being cleared, she had to fight to wrest the custody of her young son away from the New Jersey state.
Activist groups like ‘Justice 4 the New Jersey 4’ helped swing the appeal that sprung them out of prison, but the oppression didn’t stop with their liberation. Patreese’s brother Anthony, interviewed in the film, was shot outside his house just a month later. In an attempt to not come off too bleak, Dorosh-Walther ends on a bittersweet up: Renata gets custody of her son, and everyone is united with their family, some soon starting a family of their own. We also don’t get much of a clue of the prison experience for each of the four girls. But there is a bleakness running through the film, and a sense that although the girls were eventually freed, that isn’t the point: the legal system hasn’t really changed, and that’s what matters.