Film Review: The Witness

A public crime becomes a private obsession in this sharp, poignant documentary about Kitty Genovese’s brother’s investigation into what really happened the night of her infamous 1964 murder.
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Everybody knows the Kitty Genovese story, a morality tale of urban apathy in the face of savage crime. It is so well known by now, polished and worn over the decades into a smoothly delivered anecdote with teachable lessons and head-shaking, that even those who don’t know the particulars of the case, know about the story. When a story like that has been told that many times, of course, it’s almost a certainty that the truth has taken a few hits over the years. That is why a film like James Solomon’s investigative documentary is so crucial.

In March 1964, Genovese, a vivacious and widely adored 28-year-old barmaid, was returning late at night to her home in Queens, New York. She was assaulted a half-block from her apartment building by William Moseley, who over the course of two brutal attacks raped and ultimately murdered her. A narrative quickly took shape in the local news, led in large part by The New York Times: Even though Genovese screamed for help for a half-hour, none of the 38 people who heard came to her aid and she died alone, crumpled in an entryway pooled with her blood.

With Kitty’s laser-focused yet humane brother Bill as his narrator and guide, Solomon examines the particulars of not just the case itself but how it metastasized over the years into almost an urban legend. The Genovese case was used in everything from sociology texts to ‘Law & Order” episodes to illustrate the supposed anomie of the modern city dweller. It was sparked by the Times editor A.M. Rosenthal, who developed the narrative and ran with it in a series of stories and a bestselling book, and fueled by a news establishment loathe to challenge the Times. “60 Minutes”’ Mike Wallace, one of several journalists Solomon gets on camera, admits that “to some degree... it was a media creation.” The rather imperious reaction of Rosenthal himself to Bill’s questioning reveals just how invested the narrative’s creators are in its continuance.

Why should it be so important? This is a question that The Witness nods toward but never investigates. Genovese’s murder took on a similar kind of totemic significance as the Amadou Diallo police shooting in 1999. But just as the specifics of the Diallo case were often misstated (he was shot at 41 times, not shot 41 times), Solomon discovers that the 38 number becomes more nuanced the more he digs. The most shocking revelations in a film studded with them include the fact that not only could most of the 38 “witnesses” not truly see what was going on, but that Kitty was not alone at the time of her death—a friend ran down to help and cradled her as she died.

Bill was 16 years old in 1964. He was crushed first by the murder of Kitty, who had been something of a confidant, and later by the idea that nobody had cared. Eager to prove that he was not just another apathetic layabout, Bill went off to Vietnam when his contemporaries were trying to avoid it. In a battle that he doesn’t describe until the end of the film, Bill lost his legs. Although his older brothers, who appear in the film as frequently tear-struck onlookers, don’t understand his obsession with reopening the past, Bill appears to need everything about the case in order to overcome the traumas of what happened to both of them. Seemingly devoid of both self-pity and vengeance, Bill is an unusually empathetic figure, eager not just to interview Moseley’s son (another traumatized figure whose guarded nature suggests a different path than that taken by Bill) but his sister’s killer.

The Witness compresses Bill’s decade-plus search into a tight, deftly structured hour-and-a-half mystery. The film isn’t the first to debunk the case’s common narrative; the Times itself has recently worked to temper its own reporting. But because Bill’s cause is so gruesomely personal, the film’s reconstructive angle—which includes a harrowing reenactment of the murder, complete with an actress screaming for her life on a darkened street—feels less like amateur sleuthing than it does a scorching brand of revelatory family autobiography.

With its bold and honest hunger for unvarnished reality and the laying bare of journalistic failings, The Witness follows in the path of films from Spotlight to The Central Park Five that broke open established narratives and lazy assumptions. While the film could have benefited from a deeper dive into the social ramifications of the Genovese case coverage, its narrator’s daunting journey into the heart of darkness makes this essential viewing.

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