On August 23, 1989, teenage Yusuf Hawkins took the train into Bensonhurst, Brooklyn with a few of his friends to look at a car for sale. What they didn’t know, being young Black boys from East New York, was that tension was running high in that other pocket of town. A predominantly Italian American neighborhood at the time, Bensonhurst residents didn’t like outsiders, which they made clear on the night of August 23 when a mob of dozens of young white men surrounded Hawkins, wielding baseball bats and at least one firearm. Hawkins was shot, he succumbed to his injuries, and his death caught the attention of Reverend Al Sharpton, who led a wave of marches for justice well before there was social media on which Black Lives Matter could trend.
Now, just a little more than three decades after Hawkins’ murder, such marches and protests have expanded into national events. Most recently, these have been in the wake of the killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and others. As calls for justice and systemic change cry out loudly today, a documentary studying the events that led to Hawkins’ murder, as well as the movement that stemmed from it, is being released on HBO on Aug. 12: Directed by Muta’Ali, “Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn” is, in equal parts, a story about a horrific family tragedy and societal issues that range from ignorance to outright racism. It is also a project that is centered on a specific time and place but is exploring themes that have unfortunately been proven timeless.
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“I didn’t necessarily want to do a story that was just recalling the events where a Black person got killed, and I didn’t want to just throw out into the atmosphere another story of Black people being victimized,” director Muta’Ali tells Variety.
“Storm Over Brooklyn” points out that there has long-been a description of New York as a “melting pot” of ethnicities, but racial crimes like the one against Hawkins prove that platitude is historic hyperbole. Even a location as widely thought of as “cosmopolitan,” as the documentary puts it, as New York has not been immune to deep-rooted racism.
“The word denial and the witness denial was what was in my mind from before we started filming anything, and it’s still in my mind,” says Muta’Ali. “I wanted to put a spotlight on how easy it is for us to look away from things that are happening within ourselves and within our community, because that, I think, is what allows for other things to fester and for prejudices and for negative behavior to continue.”
Specifically, Muta’Ali points to the marches and protests he includes in his documentary through archival footage as examples of modern parallels and lessons from which to be learned. The notable difference, of course, is that the teenage Hawkins was killed by a white kid, not a white cop — and his shooter (Joseph Fama) was eventually arrested, tried and convicted. But eventually is a key word, as is the fact that not everyone involved in the mob was brought to justice.
“The community seemed to not want to turn the perpetrators of this crime over. It was reported and in police statements people said there were about 30 people out there who actually pursued Yusuf and his friends and participated in cornering him [but only] seven people faced charges,” Muta’Ali says.
“Reverend Sharpton primarily headed up all the marches going through Bensonhurst, and I think with that persistence over a year or so, and that noise, and it happening during a political shift in New York, with all that pressure there was justice to a certain degree. And I don’t feel like it’s fair that all that pressure is needed in order for justice to take place,” he continues. “It’s totally different scenario [but] it makes me think of all the efforts right now to get Breonna Taylor’s killers at least charged and how it’s taking so much work. It’s just sad to me that it takes so much.”
Muta’Ali also sees parallels between the political world within New York in the late-1980s when Ed Koch was mayor and that of today with Donald Trump as president: “Ed Koch was catering specifically to his constituency — and to the detriment of other people. In New York at that time the communities were very segregated, similar to how they are now: there was defunding in Black communities, there was outright neglect of the need that Black communities had and even the political leaders and activists who wanted Ed Koch’s ear had a hard time getting it. So you have a leader who’s not really sensitive to the needs of the Black community, which I personally feel is the case now; you have a race-related murder that takes place before an election; and you have these marches that are taking up the news,” he says.
The title of the documentary, “Storm Over Brooklyn,” refers not to the calls for action post-Hawkins’ murder, but instead to a political and racial storm in which people had been getting swept up for awhile, Muta’Ali notes. (Hawkins’ murder was not the only one of its kind: Willie Turks was murdered by a white mob in Brooklyn in 1982 and Michael Griffith was beaten to death in Queens in 1986. Both of these murders also inspired protests in their aftermaths.)
“Christopher, one of Yusuf’s friends mentions in the film that there weren’t any white people in East New York, and if there were, they were out there to probably purchase drugs or they were undercover cops. And I left that in there because it paints a picture of an unstated level of protection that I would have if I were a white person walking through East New York: I would either be looked upon as someone who is going to participate in commerce with you so you don’t want to bother me, or someone who has authority over you — that can arrest you — so you don’t want to bother me either. The other way around works, too: if you’re walking around somewhere and you’re Black, you’re going to be assumed to be a problem and that itself is not fair but it takes generations of work to fix all of these larger dynamics in the storm that we refer to in ‘Storm Over Brooklyn,'” he explains. “The stories I like to tell are stories that really force people to stop neglecting what should be all of our duties in my idealized perspective — which is to not neglect the people who are being hurt.”
The idea for “Storm Over Brooklyn” was brought to Muta’Ali in 2016. As Muta’Ali recalls it, Charles Darby, one of Hawkins’ childhood friends said Hawkins came to him in a dream and asked him not to forget him, which sent him on a mission to create a documentary. But Darby wasn’t a filmmaker, so he began reaching out through social media and eventually connected with producer Victorious De Costa. Muta’Ali sat down with them and says he was struck by their passion for the project. Being from Westchester, New York, Muta’Ali wasn’t as personally connected to the events: “I’m a very analytical person so I was very much attracted to the dynamics on the political side,” he says. But he adds that practically everyone else on the production team was from Brooklyn, including his longtime producing partner Jevon Frank.
Working with them helped him get to the heart of the personal side of the story, Muta’Ali says. Through a mix of archival footage of Hawkins’ parents and other loved ones at marches and press conferences and his own original interviews, Muta’Ali set out to explore how the “family was swept up in what happens when your relative becomes a martyr. The next thing you know they’re have a hard time going through a normal grieving process because the community needs Yusuf’s name to be out there,” he says. It became, “Let’s tell the story of Yusuf’s family during throughout this crisis and hang everything else on their story as ornaments.”
For “Storm Over Brooklyn,” Muta’Ali sat down with family members and friends of Hawkins, as well as Sharpton and Dr. Lenora Fulani. Very few people from Bensonhurst wanted to be a part of the project, Muta’Ali admits, although notable exceptions are Russell Gibbons, a Black man who grew up in the predominantly white neighborhood and offered unique perspective on what true acceptance looks like, and Fama, who was interviewed in prison.
“He did seem quite nervous,” Muta’Ali says of spending time with Fama. “I wasn’t sure how to read that, though, because he could have just been nervous because people get nervous on camera; he could have been nervous because it’s an uncomfortable subject; there were a lot of us in the room. I really don’t know. But that did come across and part of me thinks sometimes that nervousness came from maybe trying to grapple with what actually happened while talking about what you wish had happened. But I’m grateful that he actually decided to speak. The problem of denial includes not speaking about what’s happening.”
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