James D. Solomon’s The Witness centers on the 1964 case of Kitty Genovese, a New York City woman who was stabbed to death while returning home from work. The documentary examines the murder’s unusual (and oft-cited) peripheral circumstances, in which 38 witnesses—most of them neighbors—did nothing to try and assist Genovese as she pleaded for help. The doc’s main thread follows Genovese’s brother, Bill, as he takes it upon himself to track initial news reports and testimonies in order to recreate the murder’s circumstances. In doing so, he also discovers previously unknown details about his sister’s life, like her lesbianism and involvement with local, small-time gambling rings. But The Witness is no mere story of closure. Rather, Solomon charts Bill’s pursuits in a weaving thread of narratives related to personal reconciliation, the breakdown of community, and journalistic malpractice, which becomes especially prominent once it’s revealed that New York Times editor Abe Rosenthal fudged certain details in order to sell a story of a neighborhood of people wholly removed from one another.
While The Witness’s investment in a multitude of topics both endemic and tangential to the case makes for snappy storytelling, it also radically condenses certain portions and zaps them of their depth. The most prominent example is Genovese herself, whose biography comprises a 10-minute stretch around the film’s midpoint that’s cobbled together from a few quick interviews with those who knew her. These scenes follow an expansive detailing of the spatial parameters of the neighborhood on the night of her death, each step Genovese took after she was initially stabbed, and how Winston Moseley, her killer, was able to rape, torture, and murder her for over half an hour without anyone intervening. As structured, the film presents Genovese’s identity as an afterthought, turning her living days and nights into incidental details that the filmmakers quickly hustle through in order to return to the circumstances surrounding her murder.
There’s little doubt that Bill is genuinely haunted by his sister’s murder. In fact, Bill enlisted in the military shortly after her slaying and subsequently lost both of his legs in Vietnam, giving him a visible, material reminder of loss. Yet Solomon captures little of these feelings outside of direct confrontations, like a family dinner that results in members asking Bill when he’ll be satisfied and quit researching her murder. By film’s end, Bill’s quest is still somewhat murky, as it’s not certain what his compulsion for more information actually means. Were The Witness less invested in case details and more consumed by questions of how family members grieve when faced with irrevocable tragedy, those insights would be more likely to emerge.
When Bill meets with Moseley’s son late into The Witness, they dispute the latter’s allegation that Genovese’s murder was the result of her having used a racial slur against Moseley. Bill says that almost certainly wasn’t the case and cites Moseley’s prior rape and murder of an African-American woman in an effort to diffuse any allegations of a racially charged slaying. The son displays a certain vulnerability and general uncertainty that casts victimhood into an entirely new light (he mentions being labeled the son of a murderer for his entire life), while also reinforcing how falsified narratives of events are often used by survivors to cope with an act that cannot be readily or satisfactorily explained. Narratives of oppression, especially, work to mollify one’s anger or uncertainty while fueling a responsive narrative of action predicated on a lie. There are so many tangled, compelling threads within the scene, but Solomon merely allows them to stay as such by retreating back to Bill’s plight once it concludes. And this bombardment of social issues packed into one sprawling story curiously feels both overwhelming and undercooked.