Here's an experiment. Tonight, after midnight, haul yourself out of bed and into the street and, for a minute or two, scream bloody murder. What would happen? Would neighbors call the cops? Would patriots dash out locked and loaded? Would anyone even hear you over their earbuds and white-noise machines?
For 50 years now, one case of nighttime screaming has been held up as evidence that Americans — and New Yorkers especially — are monsters of apathy and self-involvement. You know the case, even if you don't know the names. Long before dawn on the morning of March 13, 1964, Winston Moseley murdered Kitty Genovese outside her apartment building in Kew Gardens, Queens. As The New York Times told the story soon after, precisely 38 people witnessed the crime, which took place over an agonizing 35 minutes, but nobody intervened or even reported it to the police.
News of this set off the sort of concern-trollism that our news media has always found more profitable than actual reporting: What does such indifference say about us as a people? As James D. Solomon's compelling and sometimes frustrating doc The Witness makes clear, it turns out that what the case actually tells us isn't that we live lives of pitilessness or blinkered fear. It's that we're gullible as hell.
Solomon follows the efforts of Genovese's younger brother, William, to at last make sense of a tale that is, quite literally, incredible. We see William track down surviving witnesses from the original police reports, and he quickly discovers — as journalists and historians at the Times and elsewhere have in recent years suggested — that the original reporting greatly exaggerated the reality. What has often been called 38 eyewitnesses was mostly people who told investigators that they had heard a scream in the night. Some report looking out the window, seeing nothing and then trying to get back to sleep. Another says she actually did call the police — and was told that it had already been reported.
Further complicating the we're-all-awful narrative: Moseley assaulted Genovese twice, first on the street and then, later, in the vestibule of her building, at a time when few people would be passing by. Complicating it further still: One resident friendly with the victim claims to have discovered Genovese's body and held her as the life drained out.
None of that is verifiable, of course, especially now that the witnesses have endured a half-century of being shamed in the name of anecdote-driven sociological editorializing. And William Genovese's onscreen quest sometimes plays more like performance than reporting — The Witness is structured along the lines of a Hollywood mystery, with one driven man digging into the past for truths some might prefer to remain un-dug. His day-to-day wanderings solve the problem many documentary filmmakers face: What footage can the interviews be cut around? Still, William and Solomon are persuasive on the main point, that the killing couldn't have been “witnessed” the way we've been told.
The narrative here is dual. As Solomon tells us the story of William's investigation, we're also discovering the story of William's life. (Avoid The Witness if you're angered by docs that slowly tease out crucial information in the interest of suspense.) The fact that he has lost his legs goes unmentioned for much of the film, even as we watch him drive his van, wheel his chair and climb up staircases on his hands. It's clear he's lived with grief and trauma beyond the murder that occurred when he was just 16 — and it's also clear that that murder haunts him perhaps even more than the explosion in Vietnam that still affects his every movement. Or that's what Solomon seems to want us to think — the psychology here is often noir-thriller reductive.
The Witness is at its best when William is meeting the people who once knew Kitty. Turns out she had some secrets, including an affair with her roommate, a young woman — which comes as a surprise to the family, who had no idea Kitty was gay. The moving high point is William's interview with that roommate, a sequence rendered in stirring animation by the Moth Collective. (The interviewee declined to be filmed.) Fifty years on, Genovese's last lover still feels freshly bereaved — she's lost as much as William has, maybe even more: Not long after the killing, Genovese's father spirited away from that apartment a puppy that Genovese had bought for the roommate. William tells her that, yes, that puppy appeared at his own house around that time, and that — what else can he say? — he apologizes for the thoughtlessness of his family. Both brother and lover sound sad and stirred, united in trauma, eager to commiserate.
Less cathartic is an encounter with Moseley's son, a reverend who will jolt you with how differently his family sees this crime — and how close he comes to saying that maybe Genovese deserved it. That scene unsettles, as does a climactic street-art performance piece staged by William and an actress: In the same place and at the same time that Genovese was attacked, the hired hand screams in the night, outside mostly unlit buildings. Solomon shows us William taping up an announcement of this experiment in a foyer hours before, which might defeat the point. But still, even if everyone is forewarned, you will ache for the lights to come on.