'Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn': Film Review

Yusuf Hawkins Storm Over Brooklyn Still 1 - Publicity -H 2020
Courtesy of HBO
An informative primer that never quite feels definitive.

An HBO documentary revisits a 31-year-old hate crime that still shocks.

In the summer of 1989, less than two months after the release of Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, a dramatization of racial tensions between Black and Italian Americans in Brooklyn, Yusuf Hawkins was shot to death for being a Black boy in a white neighborhood just a few miles from the film's Bedford-Stuyvesant setting.

Sixteen years old, Hawkins was the victim of an impromptu mob in Bensonhurst that had gathered to attack another Black youth rumored to be dating an Italian-American girl. Outrage over Hawkins' murder fueled at least a dozen marches — protests that so enraged the Italian-American community that one Bensonhurst resident stabbed a prominent leader of the marchers, the Reverend Al Sharpton.

Hawkins' public memory has been kept alive in song lyrics and film dedications (including in Lee's 1991 drama Jungle Fever), but a new HBO documentary about the teenager's death and its aftermath couldn't be timelier. The events that Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn chronicle need to be remembered, as a testament to both where we've been and how much further we've still got to go.

Regrettably, Storm Over Brooklyn is only a rudimentary primer on the case, rather than a particularly comprehensive or insightful one. Many of its shortfalls have to do with director Muta'Ali's (Life's Essentials With Ruby Dee) narrow focus on the Hawkins family, especially since the film is most compelling when it evokes the pressure cooker of racial hostilities that New York City had become by the late '80s.

Muta'Ali foregrounds the grief of the surviving Hawkins family members — a sensitive gesture that, unfortunately, seldom makes for riveting cinema. His efforts to humanize the deceased fail to give us much of a sense of Yusuf as a person, while burdening the first half-hour of the documentary with notable pacing issues.

Storm Over Brooklyn does capture two key facets of the case: the savviness with which Sharpton organized the response to get the Hawkins family something resembling justice, and the visible discomfort with which Yusuf's mother, Diane, participated in those probably necessary public events, when seemingly all she wanted to do was mourn in private. In archival footage, Yusuf's father, Moses, appears much more eager to speak out about the racial context of his son's death, and the filmmaker tactfully points out Moses' own shortcomings as a parent without undermining the clarity of his arguments.

Many of Muta'Ali's visual choices strive toward a hyper-localness and being-there-ness. Maps are displayed with street names and bodega names are recalled with exactitude; there's even a brief shot of a Blockbuster cover of Mississippi Burning, a movie Yusuf and his brothers had watched that evening before heading to Bensonhurst — for the record, to check out a used Pontiac they were considering purchasing.

But Storm Over Brooklyn would've provided a better sense of the times if it had dived into the wider context for the racial conflicts in the city beyond the famed Central Park jogger case, especially from Black points of view. Equally frustrating are the prison interviews with shooter Joseph Fama, who maintains his innocence and claims he'd "never really seen" racism in his neighborhood.

Muta'Ali's strictly chronological approach does make more sense when recounting the twists and turns in the case, which would eventually encompass the Mafia's role in finding the fugitive Fama, the mayoral election between Ed Koch and David Dinkins, and the critical role that one Black Bensonhurst kid played in accidentally helping the white kids he grew up with beat up the Black outsiders. Once the doc gets going, there's no shortage of surprises, though Muta'Ali seems hesitant to embrace the complications in the case, like how to divvy up legal culpability among the individuals of a spontaneous mob.

1989 isn't that long ago, which is why the open racism of the white New Yorkers — like Koch, who's seen mocking the Central Park Five, and the Italian-American counter-protesters, who mocked marchers with watermelons — remains shocking. But what lingers is how aptly Sharpton and Yusuf's father diagnosed the evil they were facing, as when the reverend accused the Bensonhurst crowd's ringleader of "organiz[ing] a lynch mob." How much faster we might have progressed if we'd listened to more Black voices then, and how much faster we might progress if we listen now.

Production companies: HBO Documentary Films, Lightbox
Director: Muta'Ali
Producers: Victorious De Costa, Jevon Frank, Alexandra Moss, Muta'Ali
Executive producer: Jonathan Chinn, Simon Chinn, Jeff Friday, Daniel Lindsay, T.J. Martin
Director of photography: Muta'Ali
Editor: Jeremy Siefer
Composer: Justin Melland

100 minutes

Premieres Wednesday, Aug. 12, at 9 p.m. on HBO.