12/7 Update: The Witness is on the Oscar shortlist for best documentary!
On a March night in 1964, Kitty Genovese was murdered in the vestibule of her Kew Gardens, Queens, apartment building as 38 witnesses did nothing, according to an unforgettable story in the New York Times, which described how she was allegedly stalked and stabbed three times in the span of a half-hour.
While spurring needed improvements in emergency response and community watchdog efforts, the horror of her death became imprinted in the public’s minds and in sociological texts as examples of urban dwellers’ indifference to others.
The Witness, a film released this year and now showing on Netflix, is an exhaustive examination of these events, resulting from a decade-long crusade to learn the truth about Genovese’s death. First-time documentarian James Solomon follows Kitty’s brother Bill as he traces the threads of the story, a story even some family members wish he could put behind him.
As Stephanie Merry wrote in Washington Post review, everyone got the story wrong, and they got Kitty wrong: “People don’t remember the vivacious bar manager, the prankster, the beloved big sister. They remember a victim.” Bill was especially close to his sister and loved her joyful, playful spirit. That is what he wanted to honor and remember in his quest to learn the truth.
“There were a lot of things we discovered,” he said in an interview with NPR’s Scott Simon last spring. “During the course of 11 years, there were a lot of stones we overturned. But basically the most fundamental thing was that the 38 eyewitness story and three attacks was not true.”
Many of the so-called witnesses did hear something—desperate screams for help that roused people out of sound sleep—and many did do something. A neighbor who knew Kitty well ran down to the narrow lobby vestibule, now knowing whether the assailant was still in the area, and cradled Kitty as she was dying.
Even the convicted murderer, Winston Moseley (he died in prison while serving a life sentence), had his own version of what happened that night. In a letter to Bill, he claimed that he did not kill Kitty, but was the getaway driver for an underworld figure.
The nature of truth—and what we choose to believe—and the fuzziness of memory are key themes in the film that echo coverage in more recent stories about iconic victims such as Freddie Gray and Trayvon Martin.
The film shows Bill doggedly pursuing leads, reading trial transcripts, checking what people might have seen from their windows, and tracking down surviving witnesses and their families like a latter-day Lieutenant Columbo. He enlists a woman to re-enact the crime using what witnesses said they heard that night. The effect is chilling. And Bill sits weeping.
In a Merry’s review, filmmaker Solomon said, “For whatever reason I am drawn to these iconic stories we think we know.” (Previously, he wrote the screenplay for “The Conspirator,” about Mary Surratt, who aided John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln.)
Editor’s note: The mischaracterization of Kitty Genovese’s death was possible, in part, because relatively few Americans have witnessed murder. We think we know how we would respond, but . . .? Today, social media makes many more of us “witnesses” to violence and provides a whole new range of responses (see this riveting WIRED account of social media around last summer’s police-involved shootings). The availability of real-time “evidence” on screens in front of us, even acknowledging that distortions may occur, should mean it won’t take 52 years for the true circumstances of these deaths to be understood.
This guest post is by Tucson-based Jodi Goalstone, author of the entertaining blog Going Yard, Offbeat Baseball Musings, celebrating her 20th year living in the Old Pueblo.