Directed by: James D. Solomon.
Written by: William Genovese & Russell Greene & Gabriel Rhodes & James D. Solomon.
The murder of Kitty Genovese has become infamous in true crime circles since it occurred in 1964. Even if the name doesn’t ring a bell, you have probably heard about the woman who was murdered in New York City late at night, while screaming for help – and all of her neighbors in the apartment building did nothing except sit back and watch it all happen before going to bed. The film became emblematic of urban apathy – a perfect example of how society had changed, and how no one really cared about each other anymore. The case led to the invention of 911, to make it easier to call for help, and has gone onto to inspire countless TV episodes, novels, book, etc. It is wildly accepted that 38 people witnessed the crime and did nothing to help – not even call the police.
James Solomon’s The Witness makes the case that this is, at best, an exaggeration on the part of the media – in particular the New York Times. Some people heard screaming, went to their windows, and couldn’t see anything, so they went back to bed. Some of the 38 never did give statements at all – and their relatives claim they slept through the whole thing. There is at least one woman who says she did, in fact, call the police. And contrary to what many think, Genovese wasn’t alone when she died – she was in the arms of her friend, who came to the landing to discover her friend. Much of that information had been known and reported before – although, as is often the case, when refutation of a myth is published, it doesn’t get the same attention as the myth in the first place.
The film accompanies Kitty’s brother Bill, as he investigates the murder – mainly for the first time. He was 16 when it happened, and no one in his family went to the original trial – it was too painful for them. Nor have they talked about the murder – or Kitty – very much in the years since – Bill’s own children cannot recall a single story anyone in their family told them about their aunt. Bill seems to be the only family member interested in looking into the case now – everyone else is satisfied to let it live in the past. They caught the murderer, he’s been in jail ever since (he died in March of 2016 – after the documentary was complete). At one point, Bill meets with the murderers son – a Minister – who, like Bill, doesn’t have all the fact, and has held onto some prejudices (like he believed the Genovese’ were part of a Mafia family – or that the attack was predicated by Kitty calling his father a racial slur – something that, oddly, is never explored in the film – not that calling someone a name gives you them an excuse to murder someone).
The Witness is a fascinating documentary that is at its best when it is exploring the crime itself, and dispelling the myths around that crime. I think in many ways, the film may have been better served by a little less focus on Bill – and little more on the implications of the case. The film is on firmer ground exploring the case, and its aftereffects, both positive and negative, and is interesting in the way it explores the media – and how this case still resonates. By concentrating so much on Bill though, the film seems to feel the need to give him some sort of emotional closure – closure he cannot really get, especially once the murderer himself refuses to see Bill, and then sends him a letter where he claims to be innocent. The film then ends with a “re-creation” of the murder itself – although not really even that. The filmmakers hire an actress to scream much the same way Kitty must have screamed that night. It’s haunting to be sure – but I’m not sure what purpose it serves.
Overall though, I do think The Witness is a strong documentary – a doc about an infamous case, and its lasting legacy all these decades later. Whether it happened the way the media at the time said it did (and it most likely didn’t) – both the myth, and the truth, never have to be reckoned with.