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HBO Revisits the Yusuf Hawkins Case in Storm Over Brooklyn

Why the 1989 murder that divided New York City still reverberates today.
  • Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn looks at the sixteen-year-old's racist killing and its aftermath.  (Photo: Hawkins Family/HBO)
    Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn looks at the sixteen-year-old's racist killing and its aftermath. (Photo: Hawkins Family/HBO)

    Primetimer editor-at-large Sarah D. Bunting knows a thing or two about true crime. She founded the true crime site The Blotter, and is the host of its weekly podcast, The Blotter Presents. Her weekly column here on Primetimer is dedicated to all things true crime on TV.

    The shooting of Yusuf Hawkins in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn in August of 1989 is one of those cases the New York area lived with, day in and day out, for several years. Although I'm surprised to report that Hawkins's murder — which sparked anti-racism protests, ugly counter-protests, and acres of tabloid newsprint — never inspired a Law & Order episode, its ubiquity in the local news and in our lives at the time is similar to those that did. Bernie Goetz, the Central Park Five, Robert Chambers — all those stories formed a ticker running underneath life in the tri-state region in the 1980s.

    But a ticker is something you glance at; you don't get the full story from it, and back then, I had my own adolescent melodrama to distract me. I went into Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn hoping for a compelling explainer to fill in the blanks. Exactly what went down that night, and why. Why is Yusuf Hawkins still a name most New Yorkers know?

    Director Muta'Ali Muhammad mostly answers those questions with a solid, community-centric documentary that focuses primarily on Hawkins' surviving family, but also provides key context to the racial divisions in New York City that led to Hawkins's murder. The filmmaking is workmanlike — attempts at re-enactment artistry, like a recreated bloody sneakerprint at Hawkins's reimagined hospital bedside, feel a bit forced — but Muhammad's access to key figures around both Hawkins (his mom, his brothers and friends) and those who played a part in the aftermath (including Reverend Al Sharpton and David Dinkins, whose election to the New York City mayoralty was probably partly tied to Ed Koch's obtusely biased response to the killing) is great. Hawkins family friend Christopher Graham is especially compelling in interview segments. Storm Over Brooklyn is a good catch-up for folks who know the name but not the details. And it's just as informative for people who know nothing about either the killing or the city at that time. Muhammad uses a lot of bracing contemporary news footage from various marches and protests in response to Hawkins' murder and to the verdicts rendered in one of the trials. Some of those segments go on a bit too long, but they give the audience necessary context and background atmosphere. And I would tell you that you wouldn't believe some of the racist nonsense people would spew in full view of — or directly to — a news camera, but it's 2020; you probably would believe it. It's still shocking though.

    Storm Over Brooklyn views Hawkins' death through the grief of those he left behind, and of a city struggling to reconcile its "melting pot" reputation with a segregated reality — so it isn't a procedural, and viewers who go in expecting a more linear look at how the case was investigated and prosecuted may be disappointed. I did find myself wishing Muhammad had included a little more of that myself, not least because, while it's interesting that he got the man who pulled the trigger that night, Joey Fama, to appear on-camera, Fama is still asserting that he didn't do anything — but the film doesn't challenge either his claims, or law enforcement's assertion that he's definitely the guy. In fact, law enforcement occupies a relatively small portion of Storm Over Brooklyn's runtime, a valid choice that gently underscores the Hawkins family's feeling that the city's white power structures didn't believe or care about them. But at the same time, an interviewee makes a passing comment about the Mob protecting Bensonhurst locals... unless and until protests demanding justice started disrupting their businesses, at which time they joined the case to help NYPD find the culprits. From the doc, it doesn't sound like that's the first or even the tenth time the Mob pitched in on cases when it benefited them economically, and I kind of want to see a whole documentary about that. Again, though, that's not Muhammad's mandate. He's out to show what Hawkins's murder did to his family, and to the city.

    To show, perhaps, how little has changed. I live not far from Bensonhurst, in a neighborhood with strong Blue Lives Matter leanings; the splenetic response from certain residents to a racial-justice march looks pretty familiar. The Sharpton we've gotten used to on MSNBC cuts a svelter figure and has smaller hair, but he's still speaking the same truth to power as he did 30 years ago. You won't see as much acid-wash at today's protests, but it's the same justifiably angry reaction to a racially fractured city, a ham-fisted mayor, and a "justice system" that isn't either. I suppose Storm Over Brooklyn could include more legal analysis, or look harder at the jealous dust-up that snowballed into a lethal misunderstanding, fueled by bigotry. What it does include — extensive documentation of a city doomed to repeat its own history; a bereft friend who still remembers his bestie's "go-to" Chinese-takeout order — is more than enough to complete a picture of what happened to Hawkins, and what should never happen again.

    Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn premires on HBO August 12th at 9:00 PM ET

    Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity, and her work has appeared in Glamour and New York, and on MSNBC, NPR's Monkey See blog, MLB.com, and Yahoo!. Find her at her true-crime newsletter, Best Evidence, and on TV podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This.

    TOPICS: Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn, HBO, Muta’Ali , Rev. Al Sharpton, Black Lives Matter, True Crime