Kitty Genovese might be the most well-known lesbian in American history.
Anyone that was alive in 1964 will remember her name and even those who have been born since. Most recently, she was part of an episode of Girls, when Adam performed in a play about the night of her death.
Sadly, it’s her tragic murder that made her a household name, and the oft-repeated fact that 38 strangers heard her screams and did nothing to help her that fateful night in Queens.
The Witness, from director James Solomon, follows Kitty’s brother, Bill Genovese, as he attempts to piece the events of March 13, 1964 together and meet the people who knew Kitty best, from her neighbors to the regulars at the bar she tended not far from her apartment in Kew Gardens. But she didn’t live alone: Kitty shared her life and her home with her partner Mary Ann Zielonko, who is also interviewed in the film but in audio only. She did not wish to show her face and is sadly and quite understandably still very shaken by Kitty’s death.
At the time, Mary Ann was seen by most as Kitty’s roommate, although there are neighbors and former patrons who claim to have known she was gay and didn’t seem to care despite it being a much more homophobic time pre-Stonewall. Mary Ann shares a sad story of how after Kitty’s passing, Kitty’s father wanting to take the couple’s dog and after Mary Ann protested, the dog was stolen. Bill sadly recounts that his mother did not want the dog, and it was taken out of the home, but not back to Mary Ann. Bill apologized on his family’s behalf, genuine in his respect for Mary Ann and her place in Kitty’s life, as well as his want to know who his older sister really was.
The Witness details Kitty’s sexual identity in a brief but important way. Kitty’s happiness was mostly due to her home life with Mary Ann, and it’s fantastic to see her brother and the filmmaker respect that by including it in the film. So many times in the past we’ve seen these kinds of relationships and parts of queer history erased in biopics or documentaries, as it has been with many discussions of Kitty in the past. While her sexuality doesn’t directly factor into the events which made her infamous, it does matter when we remember who she was and who is left grieving for her.
The police and the press never discerned Kitty and Mary Ann’s relationship, but it’s likely they were more interested in the whopping 38 witnesses who reportedly stood by and let a woman be stabbed to death. Bill tries to track down editors from the time and challenged their reports, aligning them up with original police documents and the people who claimed they called authorities both during the attack and spoke with them after. Were there truly 38 people who heard Kitty’s cries and did nothing? Did the police not react as fast as they should have? Was the press looking to make the story more sensational? Bill seems to find that of these things are a little bit true, and he reconciles how to feel about these things as he realizes the direct impact they have had on his own life.
Kitty’s convicted killer Winston Moseley refused to speak to Bill for the film, but he does write him a letter that is less than pleasing (I won’t spoil it for you). Winston’s son appears and also, somehow, defends his father’s innocence despite Winston’s having previously confessed to Kitty’s murder among other crimes. Sadly, she wasn’t his first assault and not his last.
The Witness aims to explore all sides of Kitty’s story, which has been oft-discussed, theorized and memorialized as “the bystander effect.” But what the film is able to do better than most accounts of the vicious, senseless attack is to humanize the woman we lost–the funny, beautiful, queer, undeniably likable, Kitty Genovese.
The Witness is playing at NYC’s IFC Center this weekend. It hits theaters nationwide June 17.