The name Kitty Genovese became synonymous with bystander apathy after The New York Times reported that 38 witnesses watched her being murdered — and did nothing to help. This version of events went largely unchallenged for half a century. The horrifying implications of the Times story reached across the city and the country, and would eventually impact lawmakers and lecture halls across the globe. At home, determined to prove he wasn’t like the witnesses who watched and did nothing, Kitty’s younger brother Bill Genovese volunteered to serve in Vietnam where he would lose both his legs in combat.
More than 50 years later, The Witness follows a brother’s search for the truth. In the process, he unravels a myth that transformed his life, condemned a city, and defined an era. In his decade-long investigation, Bill confronts those closest to the crime, including the surviving witnesses to Kitty’s death as well as journalists Mike Wallace, Gabe Pressman, and A.M. Rosenthal, The New York Times editor who wrote the initial coverage of the murder that launched the legend. Filmed over the course of 11 years, The Witness, directed and produced by James Solomon, premieres on Independent Lens Monday, January 23, 2017, 9 p.m. on OETA.
Filmmaker James Solomon came of age in New York during the 1970s, at a time when the cautionary tale of Kitty Genovese hung over the city. Solomon grew up to become a screenwriter and would find the opportunity to write a script about the 1964 Genovese murder. “I was originally attracted to the story as a morality play and wanted to explore what happened in those apartments. I had no reason to doubt the popular narrative of the 38 witnesses who watched.”
In 2004, The New York Times published an article on the 40th anniversary of the murder that raised questions about the accuracy of its original account, what the witnesses actually saw and heard, and whether there really even were 38 of them. Bill Genovese, who had been close to his big sister, decided to find out for himself what actually took place that night and Solomon proposed the idea of documenting his investigation. Solomon added, “When my research for the script led me to Bill and I began speaking with the people most affected by what happened that night, I came to believe there had been enough fictionalizing of the Genovese story and that a documentary would bring us closer to the truth.”
“At a time when there is a renewed focus on the responsibility of the press and public institutions to ask tough questions to distinguish myth from truth, The Witness shows the consequences when we don't," said Lois Vossen, Independent Lens executive producer. "James' documentary reminds us how ambiguous events get reshaped into narratives to fit our collective and individual needs in the absence of the whole truth.”
A gripping mystery, The Witness debunks one of America’s most chilling crime stories as a brother reclaims his sister’s forgotten life from her infamous death.
Visit The Witness page on Independent Lens, which features more information about the film.
The Witness will be available for online viewing on the site beginning January 24, 2017.