On the night of Aug. 23, 1989, 16-year-old Yusuf Hawkins went with his East New York friends to the predominantly Italian-American neighborhood of Bensonhurst, responding to a used car sales ad. After being misidentified as the boyfriend of a local girl, Hawkins was attacked by an angry mob of young white men, and was eventually shot dead. His death sparked outrage, bringing simmering racial tensions to a boil, leading to an aftermath that engulfed the city as Hawkins’ family demanded justice. Directed by Muta’Ali Muhammad (“Life’s Essentials with Ruby Dee”) the HBO documentary, “Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn,” relives that tragic night that exposed deep racial prejudices which continue to haunt the country today.
Ahead of the opening of Spike Lee’s incendiary ”Do the Right Thing” just a month prior on July 21, 1989, a few mostly white critics predicted that the film’s portrayal of racial divisions in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood might lead to riots. It did not. What did horrifyingly play out a month later, in that very same borough, was the one in which Pino (John Turturro), son to Sal (Danny Aiello), owner of Sal’s Pizzeria, said to his father: “We should stay in our own neighborhood, stay in Bensonhurst; and the niggers should stay in Bed-Stuy.”
What happened to Hawkins in Bensonhurst was, at the time, the latest violent illustration of the underlying suspicion and fear with which many whites and Blacks seemed (and still do seem) to view one another, even as many were (and still are) fighting for racial harmony. And still in 2020, conversations about racism are often stymied by differing ideas of what the word means and in which contexts. And the true scope of America’s original sin remains unacknowledged.
As “Storm Over Brooklyn” tells us, for years, New York City held itself up as a bastion of tolerance, especially relative to other American cities. But Hawkins’ death stripped away the veneer that the city had long gotten away with as a cosmopolitan stronghold. New York was never a melting pot, as each immigrant group enforced its own geographical and cultural boundaries that engendered a provincialism that permeated enclaves like Bensonhurst, which, at the time, was dominated by Italian-American families.
Black people have always be singled out because of their skin color. They were, and still are, reflexively recognized in some American neighborhoods as “outsiders,” or regarded as potential criminals.
That was true of Hawkins; and also of Michael Griffith, a young Black man, who in 1986 was killed after being hit by a car as he was chased onto a highway by a mob of young white men in New York’s Howard Beach neighborhood, a mostly white community.
More recently, in February 2012, in Sanford, Florida, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was fatally shot by neighborhood watch coordinator George Zimmerman within the gated community where Martin was visiting his relatives; in 2020, Ahmaud Arbery was killed by three white men while jogging in the Satilla Shores neighborhood, a small, mostly white coastal community in Glynn County, Georgia.
Those are just a few examples. American history is littered with similar incidences.
In 1989, racial crimes in New York City were on a rapid rise. A chart in “Storm Over Brooklyn” shows racial assaults increased from 28 in 1981 to 168 in 1988. And it’s within that setting that Al Sharpton emerged as a spokesperson for the anger that many Black people felt at the time.
The city’s racial cracks were graphically demonstrated during a series of protest marches through Bensonhurst following Hawkins’ murder, led by Sharpton — an large and divisive personality — as locals lined the streets chucking bigoted insults at the marchers.
The killing also became a focal point in the then-impending mayoral primary. The Bensonhurst shooting helped mold the campaign as a referendum on race in New York. The two leading candidates were incumbent Ed Koch and David Dinkins, who would go on to become the city’s first — and so far only — Black mayor, seemingly elected, in part, to reduce racial tensions.
Police quickly rounded up roughly 10 accused members of the mob that attacked Hawkins and his friends. A series of highly contentious trials in 1990 and ’91 followed, which the documentary mostly skirts around, opting to instead focus its attention on humanizing Hawkins and on the grief of the family he left behind.
In the end, 19-year-old accused triggerman Joseph Fama was convicted of second-degree murder on May 17, 1990, and received a sentence of 32 years to life in prison. The other main defendant in the case, Keith Mondello, was acquitted on May 18, 1990 on murder and manslaughter charges, but convicted of 12 lesser charges, including riot, discrimination, and criminal possession of a weapon.
Overall, “Storm Over Brooklyn” is a finely-produced film, relatively no-frills, and following the basic rules of storytelling as applicable to documentary filmmaking. It comes with the standard talking heads — a broad roster of candid interviewees that includes Hawkins’ family and friends, detectives who investigated the crime, attorneys, politicians, journalists, and secondary players like Sharpton, Dinkins, Spike Lee, and Jesse Jackson.
Collectively, they provide insights on the murders from every angle, and it’s all effective; like the sight of Hawkins’ mother clearly overwhelmed with emotion when asked to remember him, or a brother still haunted by the memory of his sibling’s murder. Meanwhile, journalists recall the shameless media and political biases that made wily justifications masked in a subtle racism. Plenty of archival footage, witness statements and more combine to reflect on the tragedy and subsequent fight for justice that inspired and divided the city.
One stylistic flourish that director Muhammad incorporates is the repeated use of aerial photography, which helps establish the landscape, positioning it as the threat that it was, specifically where the actual murder takes place. The device almost serves as a not-so-subtle judgement by God as the crime is committed — the crime of racism. “Yusuf Hawkins died of racism in the first degree,” then newly-elected Dinkins declared after the verdict. “That is a crime far more common than most of us are willing to admit.”
It’s been just over 30 years since four teenage friends from East New York, Brooklyn, made their ill-fated excursion to Bensonhurst to see about buying a used car. Today’s Bensonhurst is far from what it used to be, with some 55 percent of neighborhood residents foreign-born, many of them hailing from China, Pakistan and Uzbekistan.
Meanwhile, Fama is still locked up at Clinton prison in Dannemora, New York. He is not eligible for parole until 2022. He turned 50 this year.
Yusuf Hawkins would’ve been 47 years old this year.
“Storm Over Brooklyn” likely won’t teach much new to those already familiar with his story, as well as that of the social unrest that followed. The film serves as more of a primer for the uninitiated. But even for the initiated, it could contribute to ongoing discussions on how to dismantle the American racial divide that is deeply entrenched in our national psyche.
Yusuf’s father summed it all up during a press conference outside their home within a day of his son’s death, when he said: “This is not just our problem. This is Black people’s problem in general. It didn’t start with my son being murdered in Bensonhurst. It started somewhere in the area of 400 years ago. My son has been tried, found guilty and executed, all in one day, in less than an hour’s time, for nothing, only because of the color of his skin. And I just want to ask New York, and America as well, when is it going to stop?”
“Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn” premieres August 12, 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO, and will stream on HBO Max beginning August 13.