Storm Over Brooklyn’ is another essential watch

Yusuf Hawkins is a name everyone should know.

On August 23, 1989, 16-year-old Hawkins and three of his friends traveled from East New York to Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. The boys had plans to look at a car, a 1982 Pontiac for sale by the owner. When the four Black teenagers emerged from the subway into the largely white Italian-American neighborhood to meet the car’s seller, they were attacked by a mob of white kids, several armed with baseball bats. All four Black boys were injured; Hawkins was fatally shot. 

Its worthy subject matter and far-reaching consequences make it another timely, essential watch in 2020.

In the aftermath, some would say it was a case of mistaken identity. Others would argue it was the wrong time or the wrong place. The brawl that ensued was eventually tied to a love triangle involving a white neighborhood girl whom neither Hawkins nor his friends knew — proof, some claimed, that the murder wasn’t racially motivated at all. 

But in Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn, director Muta’Ali calls Hawkins’ murder what it is: a sickening hate crime reflective not only of where this country has been, but of where it must go. Methodically thorough and shocking as ever, this long overdue retrospective brings yet another instance of racist savagery to the forefront of modern discourse anchored in the Black Lives Matter movement. It is not a perfectly executed film — it fluctuates between powerful and dry, prescient and redundant — but its worthy subject matter and far-reaching consequences make it another timely, essential watch in 2020. 

Yusuf and his brothers Freddy and Amir.

Yusuf and his brothers Freddy and Amir.

Image: hawkins family/hbo

Weaving together news coverage of the attack and the sprawling protests that followed with recent interviews from Hawkins’ surviving family members and other pivotal figures in the case, Storm Over Brooklyn revisits Hawkins’ murder through the lens of the many others like it. Yes, we are provided with ample explanation of the specifics in this incident — witnesses recount their experiences as newly rendered graphics map out where the attack took place — but it’s the insidious tendrils of Hawkins’ senseless murder that make the project especially impactful.

As the documentary exhibits in excruciating detail, Hawkins’ murder wasn’t the only one of its kind at the time; that the colossal Central Park jogger case and hugely controversial Tawana Brawley accusations exist only as brief asides in this projects speaks to its all-encompassing nature. In the ’80s and ’90s, the liberal city of New York was mired in hate crimes and racial tension. Hawkins’ murder provides a roadmap for Muta’Ali and his interview subjects to explore how that reality was exploited for political gain by the late politician Ed Koch, how it contributed to the climate surrounding the attempted assassination of Reverend Al Sharpton, and how it continues to propagate toxic beliefs about where racism does and does not come from.

Racist attacks and racist behaviors have never been contained to specific parts of the country, nor are they exclusive to bad cops, self-proclaimed vigilantes, and Klan members. Storm Over Brooklyn offers meaty support to this debunking, placing Joseph Fama, the man (then teenager) convicted of killing Hawkins, as a maddening personification of this falsehood. Watching Fama defend himself in his on-camera interview is not enjoyable, and arguably Muta’Ali allows it to go on too long. Still, it aptly captures the exhausting rhetoric around this case — the persistent denial of a hate crime even as a community stares its horrific destruction in the face. (Fama is up for parole in 2022, FYI.) 

A salient entry in the United States’ ever-evolving reckoning with racism, Storm Over Brooklyn provides essential documentation for future generations and plenty to chew over in the present. It does not provide the answers we need, nor the catharsis so many want. Still, it’s a project that demands time and interest from those who have it. Yusuf Hawkins is a name everyone should know, and Storm Over Brooklyn takes valiant strides toward that goal. 

Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn airs August 12 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.

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