Overview: This documentary tells the story of 4 gay women who were harshly punished for attacking a man who sexually harassed them. 2014; Unrated; 77 Minutes
Polemics: The “issue documentary,” usually taking the form of a polemic, is as recognizable for its form as it is for its content. Talking heads, pretty b-roll, important info conveyed in onscreen text followed by interview commenting on it, using a person’s refusal to be interviewed as a subtle suggestion of their character, a few fancy graphics, and either a happy ending or (more often) a call to action. Out in the Night clings closely to this format, but it’s used to tell an engaging enough story that it’s excusable. Its structure is an old hat, and the filmmaking doesn’t distinguish itself in any way, but it’s a story told so effectively that it hardly matters.
Social Justice x3: The four women at the center of the film are both black and homosexual, so the film tackles a trifecta of prejudices all at once. The unfair treatment of black Americans by the police and the justice system, particularly in self-defense cases, is brought up. The attack on the man was instigated after the man sexually harassed one of the women and threatened to rape her after she turned him down, bringing up arguments about the nature of street harassment and whether women overreact to it. And, of course, homophobia is a major issue at play, with the press spinning the story into a gang of angry lesbians viciously attacking an innocent man. None of these issues are explicitly discussed for more than a minute or two, yet they frame the entire film. Out in the Night is far more interested in its characters than its social issues, even though it uses a traditional “issue doc” playbook. After all, the latter is inherent to the story, but the former requires this film to depict it.
Night Run: Out in the Night runs a scant 77 minutes, which is unfortunate, as it hints at a lot of angles that it doesn’t have time to explore. There were seven women charged with the attack, but the film only focuses on those who pleaded not guilty. The three who pleaded guilty are left out of the story entirely. Perhaps they didn’t want to participate, but it still feels like a vital piece of the story was ignored. The film’s slimness works against it by removing some of its impact. Everything speeds by so quickly that things really don’t have time to stick with you. As such, the film’s most shocking and powerful bits are shoved to the final fifteen-or-so minutes. They pack a punch, but the film might have been better served had it included more of these details throughout.
Wrap-Up: Out in the Night doesn’t stray far from a particular documentary model, but its story is shocking and engaging enough to carry it through.