It’s practically reductive to call the 1964 murder of Queens resident Kitty Genovese “infamous.” The details of Genovese’s death – mostly the gobsmacking New York Times report that nearly 40 of her neighbors heard and/or saw her being stabbed to death outside of her apartment building and did nothing about it – shocked the nation and became a symbol of the hardened cynicism endemic in the city and, in a larger sense, the modern world. Over fifty years since the crime was committed, the name “Kitty Genovese” is still synonymous with the apparent perils of living in the city and the sort of apathy that can turn seemingly good, everyday people into the kind of monsters that would watch as a woman died just feet from their home.
But, as is so often the case with stories that so swiftly become emblematic of larger attitudes and issues, most of what we think we know about the death of Kitty Genovese is simply not true. At least, that’s what James D. Solomon’s precise and compelling documentary “The Witness” tells us, using hard reporting and deep emotion to peel back misinformation, half-truths and straight up lies to reveal not just what Kitty Genovese’s death meant, but her life, too.
Guided by Kitty’s own brother, William “Bill” Genovese, who narrates the film and essentially serves as its protagonist, “The Witness” functions as revisionist history of the most urgent and important kind, resulting in not only profound implications for the people who made it, but the very audience who watches it.
Now in his late sixties, Bill spends the film finally coming to terms with the murder of his sister, an event that shaped his young life in ways large and small (years after Kitty’s death, Bill signed up for the army with the express intent of fighting in Vietnam, bucking the concept of being a bystander in his own way; he returned from the war paralyzed from the waist down).
For the Genoveses, Kitty’s death was always an intensely personal event, and they did their best to ignore the hoopla surrounding it, resulting in even them not being totally clear on what happened, how it happened and how far off the mark reported “facts” actually were. Eager to finally understand, Bill plunges into investigating the crime, as aided by director James D. Solomon (the film is his directorial debut, but he’s penned a number of true crime screenplays in the past), and the results are unnerving as anything you’ll find on a screen this season.
Bill and Solomon’s investigations are wide-ranging (that “The Witness” clocks in at just under 90 minutes is one of its many surprises, given how much ground it covers), and pay equal attention to both dismantling the lies surrounding Kitty’s death and reconstructing a closer look at who she was in life. A popular high schooler turned bar manager, Kitty was well-known and well-loved by her customers, co-workers and neighbors. She was hardly the isolated naif some stories have painted her as, and her neighborhood was a relatively safe one populated by community-minded people. Kitty’s death was unquestionably heinous, but it wasn’t a symbol of some greater evil creeping into the world, it was just a terrible thing that happened to a good person.
The driving question of “The Witness” is, of course, did nearly 40 people really stand by and watch as Kitty was murdered in the street? Based on Bill and Solomon’s probing investigation, one that attempts to wholesale reconstruct the list of people who could have been counted amongst those 37-odd people, the answer is a resounding no.
While names have emerged over the years of people who did help Kitty, including her friend Sophia Farrar and her neighbor Karl Ross (both of whom are discussed at length in the film), “The Witness” makes plain that that story, the story of people helping Kitty, is the one that should be remembered and reported. (Per both the film and other investigations, it’s also believed that a number of people simply didn’t hear Kitty, or thought they were overhearing a lover’s quarrel, and numerous instances of people calling the cops quickly were later recounted.)
Although “The Witness” functions just fine as a true crime documentary in the vein of such en vogue offerings as “Serial” and “Making a Murderer,” the film makes its mark when it leans in on the deeply personal connection between its subject and its storyteller. Bill bravely endures numerous shocking events, including a meeting with the son of Kitty’s convicted killer that is so aggravating and awful that the film can scarcely contain it, in service to uncovering the truth about the event that so terribly altered so many lives.
The film concludes with Bill going all-in on his experience, hiring a young actress to portray Kitty during the last minutes of her life. As Bill quietly observes the young woman, agonizing in the street, he finally assumes the role of witness to the crime, one he avoided for so long. She screams, and Bill hears her. We do, too.
“The Witness” opens in limited release on Friday, June 3.