The Witness – 5 stars
The story is now lore. In 1964, Kitty Genovese was attacked outside her Queens apartment. Her assailant stabbed her, ran, and then returned to rape her and finish the job. 37 witnesses turned away. They looked out the window and saw Kitty being stabbed. They heard her pitiful screams. Fearful, callous and/or a sign of the times in our urban hellholes, they drew their blinds and did nothing.
Turns out it’s all bullshit. While it appears two people may have seen her and elected not to intervene, one did, screaming at her assailant to get away yet unaware that she had been injured. A neighbor actually did go down to the street (Genovese died in her arms), many of the “witnesses” who are still alive state that they called the police or the extent of their “witnessing” was merely hearing a scream down on the street and then, not hearing more, thinking nothing more of it.
Ah, but what a story. The first half of documentarian James Solomon’s riveting re-investigation – which utilizes interviews, old documentation, photos, footage and animation to put us on that street or in one of the overlooking apartments – destroys the myth. As relayed by one reporter who had his doubts, “it didn’t make any sense” but because it was being propagated by the powerful and highly influential The New York Times, doubts were shelved because “It would have ruined the story.” That story was under the care and feeding of then-editor Abe Rosenthal, who wrote a book about the murder and jealously protected the myth, even going to the extremes of haranguing reporters decades later when the Times re-investigated and came clean on its excesses. In an interview with Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes fame, who was then a radio reporter, his candor is both laudatory and depressing. Yes, he says cheerfully, the story was shot full of holes, but it is a great story and the Times was pushing it. What’s not to like? From there, the story embedded itself in the national psyche, a development Solomon firmly establishes.
This is an important film. In an age where one would think, given the plethora of alternative sources of news and investigation, that such a meme could not take hold, it’s just the opposite. When the forces want to deliver you a narrative, be it for perceived social good or simple economic gain in the form of extended play, they can be overwhelming. I remember reading the UVA rape story in Rolling Stone and with a daughter at college, being incensed and affected. I then re-read it, and it just seemed . . . thin. There was not one named source, yet, it was so utterly sensational as to be irresistible. Indeed, there was an entire phalanx of denunciations, movements, calls to action, tut-tutting about rape culture and privilege, etc . . . And the entire story was a fanciful creation of a disturbed, pathetic woman. It does not stand alone. Remember every false narrative offered in the MOVE bombing in 1980s Philadelphia, the Matthew Shepard murder, the “rape” by the Duke lacrosse team, the recent Ferguson shooting, and on and on.
The second half of the film centers more on the emotional impact of the murder on the Genovese family. It is her tortured brother Bill who is most affected, and he is our guide back into history, but the shrapnel emanating from her death did damage to every member of the family (both parents suffered early strokes and Kitty’s father died very young). On the hopeful side, as he deconstructs the fable, he revives his sister, replacing the myth with a living, breathing neighborhood barmaid who had roots in the neighborhood, including a female lover.
A must see, the film will instill in you a healthy reserve and skepticism of anything you hear in the heat of the moment. Or, it should.