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Stream It Or Skip It: ‘Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn’ On HBO, A Documentary About One Of New York’s Most Divisive Race-Related Murders

For those who remember what New York City was like in the 1980s and early ’90s, the Yusuf Hawkins case stands out for a couple of reasons. One was the fact that 16-year-old Hawkins was a good kid who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and because Hawkins and his friends were surrounded by a mob of white teenagers, who had the mistaken notion that they were there for a party held by one of the mob’s white female classmates. The resulting racial tension that unfolded over Hawkins’ murder in August of 1989 is documented by director Muta’Ali Muhammad in Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn.

YUSUF HAWKINS: STORM OVER BROOKLYN: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?

The Gist: Muhammad takes an in-depth look at the circumstances that placed Hawkins and his friends, from East New York, Brooklyn, in the mostly-white Bensonhurst neighborhood on August 23, 1989. They were there to take a look at a used car. But the group of teen boys who surrounded them while brandishing baseball bats felt they were there on the invite from Gina Feliciano, the former girlfriend of Keith Mondello, and that they were there to fight the group of white teens. Hawkins ended up getting two bullets right above his heart.

After Hawkins’ death, with his mother Diane so distraught that she could barely speak out to the media, his father, Moses Stewart, became the face of the family to the media, despite the fact that he was out of the lives of Yusuf and his brothers Amir and Freddy until earlier that year. Stewart was the one who got in touch with Rev. Al Sharpton, who led a dozen marches in Bensonhurst to protest Hawkins’ death through the trials of Mondello, the accused ringleader, accused trigger man Joey Fama and others from that mob.

During those protests, archival footage shows just how much anger emanated from Bensonhurst’s then mostly-Italian population (it’s been slowly giving way to an Asian influx) towards Sharpton, who just came off representing Tawana Brawley when her racially-charged kidnapping was deemed to be faked, and the Black population in general. The invective coming from the people from the neighborhood sounds shocking now but was par for the course back then.

Muhammad interviews Hawkins’ mother, brothers and friends, as well as Sharpton, Mondello’s defense attorney Stephen Murphy, law enforcement, DAs who tried the case and first responders. Also interviewed was Fama, coming to the end of a 32-year sentence for Hawkins’ murder, and former mayor David Dinkins, who defeated Ed Koch in the mayoral primary that year and visited Hawkins’ family in a show a solidarity during the campaign.

Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn
Photo: HBO

What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Pretty much any documentary or movie that explored New York’s racial tensions in the ’80s. There’s a reason why films like Do The Right Thing were made back then; the whole decade revealed the city as a massive racial tinder box waiting to explode.

Performance Worth Watching: Even over 30 years later, the dignity of Diane Hawkins is remarkable. She still gets emotional talking about her middle son Yusuf and how he had plans to have a successful life after school, but she’s very clear-eyed about what happened back then. She’s especially strong when she talks about how Moses helped her when she couldn’t be the face of the movement, but she knew when to send him on his way when he tried to take over how she conducted herself during all those news conferences and marches.

Memorable Dialogue: Sharpton about the invective he and the protesters got during their marches in Bensonhurst: “I have never — I guess because I was born in the North — but I had never seen such unrefined, open hate in my life. Ysuf Hawkins took away this veneer that [the city] had gotten away with to the world of ‘cosmopolitan New York.’ Rednecks are like this; Bensonhurst made me say, ‘What? New Yorkers are like this?'”

Our Take:  It could be because I followed the tabloid and TV news reports of Hawkins’ murder 31 years ago — by then, I was ready to enter college, so I wasn’t exactly a kid back then — but I was fascinated with Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn. It could be because it filled in my blanks or the things I didn’t remember about the case. Or it could simply have been the remarkable access Muhammad got to talk to people like surviving members of Hawkins’ family, his friends, Sharpton, Dinkins and more. That access is the key to put the Hawkins case in the perspective of the racial tensions that were boiling over in New York during the ’80s. But it also couches the murder in today’s world, despite the fact that it was released pre-pandemic and pre-George Floyd.

Hawkins’ murder was one of the tipping points of a decade that included the Bernie Goetz case, the Central Park jogger case, and the Howard Beach incident where a mob of white men chased a Black man onto a highway, where he was hit and killed. But it’s amazing to know that the invective coming from everyone from Ed Koch to the residents of Bensonhurst — some of whom may have been “connected” — didn’t disappear but was merely buried underground until Donald Trump became president. The statements and generalizations you hear coming from people back then sound shocking now, but they were a fact of life then. But what the film points out just by detailing the case, is that the kind of racism that got Hawkins killed has always been there, and didn’t go away after Rudy Giuliani beat Dinkins in 1993.

The film only barely addresses the bad reputation Sharpton had back then, especially after the Brawley incident, but he does get a dressing down from Russell Gibbons, the mob’s “one Black friend”, who thinks Sharpton instigated the people of Bensonhurst into that level of hate and invective. But hearing Sharpton now, after he reshaped his image over the past 30 years, shows that his incentive behind the protests was (mostly) pure, and that he’ll be proven to be on the right side of history, even if he’ll never be considered to be a civil rights hero like the recently-deceased John Lewis is.

Our Call: STREAM IT. Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn depicts a version of New York that millennials and zoomers probably know little about, but it does indicate that the racial tension that exploded with the murder of George Floyd has always been there, and will likely not be solved any time soon.

Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, VanityFair.com, Playboy.com, Fast Company.com, RollingStone.com, Billboard and elsewhere.

Stream Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn On HBO Max

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