Reviewed by Lesley Coffin
The story of Kitty Genovese has become a cautionary warning about the dangers of bystander apathy. Her murder has been borrowed for stories in books, films, TV, and music, not to mention added to the history books about New York during the turbulent mid-60s. Every few years, or when a similar case appears in the news, her death is remembered and used to ask the public to be “Good Samaritans.” Kitty Genovese’s death has become a symbol that we never forget how something like that could happen…but as the new documentary (directed by James Solomon and produced by her brother Billy Genovese) suggests, making her this myth cost her loved ones the memory of who she was in life.
Her younger brother Billy recounts that following the tragic death and public outcry, the family not only couldn’t stand to discuss her death (they couldn’t attend the murder trial), they stopped discussing Kitty altogether. And after hearing in the film’s first half how the case was reported, their reaction is completely understandable. Kitty was randomly murdered in an neighborhood of Queens, New York (Kew Gardens), by a man who stabbed her multiple times at two different locations within half an hour. According to the media, Kitty screamed bloody murder, awaking at least 37 “witnesses” who did nothing to help her. That was the story passed around…that was the story the family heard over and over again. Their daughter and sister died alone after moving away from home and family to live in the big city and be an independent woman. And while her death was reported over and over again, in horrific detail, Kitty Genovese’s life remained a mystery to the public.
And the sad fact is, the media that capitalized on her murder wanted it that. The New York Times broke the story of her murder with the 37 (eventually 38) witnesses within two weeks…although almost as soon as Billy begins digging into the case, it is revealed that there are simple facts they got wrong. A majority of so-called eye witnesses could only hear some of what was going on and if they could see something, they had to have been awakened by screams before she moved inside her apartment building. In interviews with Billy, some even claimed they called the police, who claimed they knew of the event and sending someone (but never did). The events recounted now are strange to hear, and even stranger to see Billy taking this information in for the first time. We never know who’s telling the truth, but it’s clear that thorough investigations were not done at the time. But there are still revealing bits of the story which remain clear and intact (at least two men were eye witnesses) which show that there was some unwillingness from citizens to step in, out of fear or apathy, and help her. Why didn’t the story simply focus on these facts, rather than sensationalizing the story further by claiming 38 people were guilty of doing nothing?
Well, the tragic fact is, those 38 people were better for the story. The ability to blame upstanding citizens for the crime was more interesting and kept the case in the papers longer than if one man had killed one woman. The reveal in the documentary that other women were apparently killed by Winston Mosely (but he was never arrested or convicted) shows that Kitty Genovese’s murder made an impression on the public. She was a pretty, young, white woman, who unlike the other women, had been murdered on the public streets. The case would have stayed out of the papers and TV news had those “38 eye-witnesses” never been part of the story. The public’s outcry to bring Kitty’s killer to justice arguably lead to police pressure to solve the case; but did not bring the same closure to the families of those other women.
But it also created a narrative the family had to live with of for decades. There were no reporters asking about Kitty, the woman, or what her family (or girlfriend) loved about her. What would they miss about her? The public took ownership of her memory away from her family, which is part of the reason allowing only Billy to tell this story feels so appropriate in this documentary. But the public took ownership because they were inundated with reports that told and retold the same story that people just like them were indirectly responsible for this tragedy. 38 witnesses, who stood by and watched as a young woman was murdered in cold-blood. How could the collective “we” do such a thing? And while more and more reports fueled that fire, none went deeper than the initial New York Times article or were willing to question their reporting; doing so put them at risk of being on the opposite side of the outrage.
Which is where this appropriately personal documentary finds its timely relevance. Kitty Genovese’s murder was not the first to be sensationalized by the media. But it also happened to be far from the last (consider another recent documentary, Central Park Five), and as the media becomes bigger and bigger, the use of fear and outrage to drive “hits” increases this journalistic behavior. And as we see that increasing, news sites seem to ignore nuance and details to satisfy impatient readers. They add fuel to the fire to create more outrage, which blinds the public to complexities, while systematically shutting down any descending opinions by making them enemies of a good cause.
The remarkable aspect of the film The Witness is how seemingly easy it was to find those who questioned the facts once Billy Genovese starts researching his sister’s case. A true witness (and friend) of Kitty’s last moments whose story went unreported or outright falsified surfaces very early. And researchers who did question the reporting by New York Times editor A.M. Rosenthal and writer Martin Gansberg as sensationalizing a story, provided more detail than those initial reports…however, their reporting occurred in the aftermath of that article, after the story had already become known as fact. There’s enough information about this media phenomena that another entire documentary could have been made about the reporting and response to this murder, which makes the documentary’s straightforward but detailed layout all the more impressive. They address these fact early and with tenacity, before going deeper to understand the truth and details which had alluded Billy, and the public.
What is remarkable about this rather straightforward documentary, however, is without learning nearly as much about Kitty as she arguably deserves (the remaining family can barely speak her name on camera), the impact she felt is clear, especially in the film’s second half. Billy isn’t simply the investigator; he is using this experience to come to some acceptance about the loss of his dearly loved sister because that half century lack of closure deeply affected his life. A Vietnam veteran who lost both legs in battle, he clearly sees a connection between his sister’s death and his choice to enlist. Others who briefly speak of their relationship with Kitty show brief images of a feisty, rebellious young woman who was just beginning to accept her sexuality with her live-in girlfriend when she died. Although still only a sketch of who she was, this Kitty resonates with the viewer far more than nondescript pretty victim the media turned her into.
Today we see plenty of crimes turned into media stories, and a documentary like this can leave you questioning the affects sensationalism has on how we process news. The authors of that New York Times article claimed even if the facts were wrong, the ultimate results we got creating “Kitty Genovese Syndrome” were good for society. It promoted psychological investigations into mass bystander apathy and taught everyone that if they see something, they need to say something. Perhaps that’s enough to justify some poor reporting…or perhaps it’s simply a key example of biased journalism used to outrage the public rather than inform them. Whatever the answer, Billy Genovese and director James Solomon’s unraveling of this piece of history provides more to consider about this one case than we’ve seen in 50 years of recounting the story…and does so with an unexpected poignancy this story has never received, but desperately needed.
Lesley Coffin: Is editor and founder of Movies, Film, Cinema. A writer with a masters degree from NYU’s Gallatin School in biographical studies and star theory. She wrote the biography on Lew Ayres (Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector) and Hitchcock’s Casting (Hitchcock’s Stars). Lesley currently freelances as a critic and interviewer for a number of sites, including regular contributions to The Interrobang, Pink Pen, and Young Folks, and previously wrote for The Mary Sue and Filmoria. (Twitter handle @filmbiographer, website lesleycoffin.com)