A picture of Kitty Genovese from ‘The Witness’ (Five More Minutes Productions)
You’ve certainly heard the story: On March 13, 1964, a 28-year-old woman named Catherine “Kitty” Genovese was stabbed to death on the street in her residential Queens neighborhood of Kew Gardens while 38 witnesses watched from their apartments and did nothing. It’s a harrowing tale, one that has come to represent both the dangers of urban life and the apathy of modern society. Fifty years later, the tragedy remains a part of our collective consciousness, making its way into books, films, songs, and more than one Law & Order episode. But there’s a problem with the Kitty Genovese story as we all know it: It’s not exactly true. In the engrossing new documentary The Witness (premiering this week at the New York Film Festival), Kitty’s younger brother Bill Genovese attempts to get some long-awaited closure by investigating the facts of his sister’s death. But he soon learns that truth is murkier than legend — and closure may be the most elusive thing of all.
Director James Solomon’s documentary closely follows Bill, a man who has been haunted his entire life by his sister’s murder. After high school, he enlisted in the Marines to serve in Vietnam — where he lost both of his legs in combat — because he couldn’t bear the idea of being an “apathetic bystander.” Now in his golden years, Bill dives into Kitty’s 50-year-old case with the tenacity of a hard-nosed journalist, seeking out New York Times staffers who covered the story in 1964, deciphering barely legible police records, and tracking down surviving witnesses. All this research was inspired by a 2004 New York Times article that cast doubt on the paper’s original Kitty Genovese reporting, particularly in regard to the number of witnesses and the extent to which they saw the crime unfold. (“For more than half an hour 38 respectable, law‐abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens,” began the famous 1964 article.) Bill, too, becomes fixated on the notion of “38 witnesses” and attempts to determine who these people were and what, exactly, they experienced that night.
Bill Genovese in ‘The Witness’ (Five More Minutes Productions)
More than once, Bill uncovers a surprising new fact about the murder — for example, Kitty did not die alone in the street, but in the arms of her friend Sofia, who came running to help. “It would have made such a difference to my family, knowing that Kitty died in the arms of a friend,” says Bill, whose face-to-face meeting with Sofia is one of the film’s most touching moments. Bill and Solomon also get some insight into how the Times’ account of the murder remained unquestioned for decades, despite its factual inaccuracies. And the witness interviews yield small details with profound implications — for example, one of the men he talks to mentions how many neighborhood residents at the time were Holocaust survivors, which may have contributed to their distrust of authorities and reluctance to call the police.
However, this isn’t one of those documentaries that results in a big, cathartic reveal. Winston Moseley, who confessed to the murder when he was 29, is still alive and in prison — but Bill’s plan to meet his sister’s killer doesn’t pan out in the way he hopes. The deeper into the rabbit hole Bill journeys, the more maddening questions and loose ends come to light. Finally, failing to find the definitive answers that will bring him peace, Bill decides to do something else to bring himself closure. The climactic scene of the documentary — which we won’t spoil here — is a shocker: the baffling and inevitable culmination of Bill’s painful obsession.
Kitty Genovese (Five More Minutes Productions)
Somewhat surprisingly, The Witness fails to touch on the positive legacy of Kitty’s death; namely, the creation of the universal 911 emergency number and the emergence of a new branch of psychology focused on human altruism. Perhaps those things seemed irrelevant to the filmmaker because they emerged in response to the myth of Kitty, rather than the actual facts. Instead, Solomon joins Bill as he ventures to learn more about her life in New York City prior to the murder. It has come out in recent years that Kitty was gay, and through the reminiscences of her friends and her live-in girlfriend, Mary Ann Zielonko (one of two people who had the painful task of identifying Kitty’s body), Bill builds a portrait of a woman who was much more than a victim — much more, even, than a “barmaid,” as the papers identified her. Though Bill’s macabre fixation on Kitty is often painful for his brothers and extended family, it also enables them to talk about her life for the first time; like the rest of the world, they had come to define Kitty by her death.
The Witness will not put the story of Kitty Genovese to rest, but it’s far too late for that anyhow. Last summer, a feature film based on the murder, called 37, was shot in Queens, and Lena Dunham is reportedly incorporating the story of the murder into an upcoming episode of Girls. Moreover, Genovese’s name has become shorthand for any situation in which someone stands by, refusing to take action, while violence or injustice is perpetrated. Fifty years after Kitty died, it’s hard to go a day without reading a story of senseless gun violence, war crimes, or other horrors. Scrolling past the headlines on our Facebook and Twitter feeds, we have all been witnesses to something we would rather not see.