James Solomon likes stories that we all think we know, and then finding the story behind that story. It’s what attracted him to the conspiracy behind the Lincoln Assassination that led to his film THE CONSPIRATOR, and his adaptation of Johnathan Mahler’s book about unrest in the summer of 1977, The Bronx is Burning for ESPN. When it came to the infamous story of Kitty Genovese, murdered in 1964 as her neighbors in Queens ignored her screams for help, he hadn’t anticipated discovering so much that contradicted the news reports of the time. He abandoned his plan for a feature film, and opted for a documentary, THE WITNESS, told from the point of view of Kitty’s younger, adoring, brother, William.
When we spoke by phone on July 18, 2016, my first question about why this particular tragedy had caught the public’s attention then, and continues to do so now. We went on to discuss telling a story when all the facts can never be known, the place of personal narrative in our daily lives, and the relationship he formed with William Genovese, Kitty’s remarkable brother whose need to discover the truth drives the documentary. We finished with Solomon talking about how the story of losing a sibling became all too personal for him, and how knowing Bill Genovese helped him through it.
THE WITNESS is his documentary about truth, perception, and how the media reacted to both when reporting on the brutal murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964. At the time, the New York Times story said that she screamed for help over the course of 30 minutes as her neighbors, 38 witnesses, ignored her pleas, failing even to call the police. Fifty years later, Kitty’s brother, William, investigates why those neighbors did nothing, and in the process discovers a story that was too good to be fact-checked as he searches for his own closure in losing a sister he adored. Conversations with journalists, policemen, Kitty’s friends, and the neighbors themselves, tell a story about much more than just the way a horrific story was told, it considers the time, the place, and the zeitgeist of when it happened, as well as why this murder has gripped the popular imagination for half a century, and the psychological damage incurred by violence that can be passed down through generations. Solomon’s previous work includes writing the film THE CONSPIRATOR about Mary Surrat’s involvement in the Lincoln assassination, and ESPN’s mini-series, The Bronx is Burning, set in 1978 that juxtaposed the Son of Sam killings, the turmoil within the NY Yankees organization, and the literal burning of buildings by landlords unable to sell them. THE WITNESS is his directorial debut.