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The Long Shadow of Yusuf Hawkins

The HBO documentary ‘Storm Over Brooklyn’ recounts the 1989 killing of a Black teenager by a white mob, which sparked protests and underscored New York’s racial tensions. Director Muta’Ali discusses the parallels between then and now, and the challenge of making Hawkins more than just a symbol.

In August 1989, Yusuf K. Hawkins journeyed to Bensonhurst with a few friends to inquire about a used Pontiac up for sale. Family tried to warn the 16-year-old — you’re Black, don’t go into that heavily white Italian neighborhood at night — but he hopped on the train and went anyway. Unbeknownst to him, that specific section of Bensonhurst was already heating up — a local white girl was dating a Black man, which angered her white friends — and when Hawkins arrived there the evening of August 23rd, the assembled mob, believing the boyfriend was showing up, mistook Hawkins and his pals for the person they wanted to rough up.

In the melee that ensued, Hawkins was shot twice and died later at the hospital. Sadly, it was merely the latest racially-motivated incident in New York. Earlier that year, the city rushed to (wrongfully) convict the Central Park Five, exacerbating a paranoia among white New Yorkers that Black people were a menace. Back in 1987, Black teenager Tawana Brawley accused four white men of raping her, but she never got justice. Prominent Black leaders were determined that Hawkins would not suffer a similar fate, loudly and visibly protesting his killing — including staging marches through Bensonhurst, which enraged the local white population, who threw objects and epithets at the protestors.

With the rise of Black Lives Matter, there’s been a newfound awareness for the systemic racism that imperils Black Americans, but the sad fact is the recent police killings of Michael Brown and George Floyd merely represent a new generation of racially-motivated homicides. Hawkins wasn’t slain by the cops, but the underlying white supremacy that prompted his death isn’t so far removed from the tragedies we see today.

Filmmaker Muta’Ali seeks to connect the past with the present in his new HBO documentary, Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn, a comprehensive overview of the 1989 killing and its aftermath, speaking to family members, civic leaders and Bensonhurst residents — including Russell Gibbons, a rare Black man in this predominantly white neighborhood, who remains more loyal to his block than to the Black protestors. Crucially, the film also recaptures the powder-keg atmosphere that contributed to this crime. (Do the Right Thing, one of the definitive portraits of race in America, came out that summer and also takes place in New York, illustrating tensions between its Italian and Black characters.) 

Storm Over Brooklyn is a story about Hawkins, but it’s also about the people he left behind — especially his mother Diane, who was too distraught to speak much to the media at the time. (That job was handled by her estranged husband Moses, who returned to the fold only a few months before Hawkins’ killing, after having been gone for most of his kids’ childhood. He died in 2003.) And while Hawkins’ death certainly has parallels to Black Lives Matter, Muta’Ali keeps his documentary focused on the late 1980s and early 1990s as the accused killers face trial and activists like Al Sharpton work the court of public opinion. Besides, Muta’Ali doesn’t need to state his film’s modern-day relevance — it’ll be apparent to anyone watching the news.

Last week, I talked with Muta’Ali about revisiting a 31-year-old murder and speaking to Diane, who’s lived with this crime for decades now. (“They’re recovering from this at their own pace,” he says of the Hawkins family, “and I hope that talking about it has been a step toward the healing.”) We also discussed Muta’Ali’s meeting with Joey Fama, who was convicted of Hawkins’ killing and is currently in prison. And I touched on an interesting phenomenon that’s mentioned in Storm Over Brooklyn: Why is it that racist white communities always have that one Black friend? 

Was part of your desire to make the movie a fear that a new generation of protestors had forgotten Yusuf Hawkins’ story? 

I felt that what happened to Yusuf was a result of some larger forces at play — and those larger forces are at play in many communities in the U.S. — so that gave the story contemporary relevance. It also allowed me to tell a story that hadn’t been told in feature-length documentary form — and which wasn’t just rooted in recalling an instance where a Black kid was killed by a white mob. I resisted doing a story purely about that because what it can do sometimes is reinforce the narrative, even to Black people, that we are victims. It can reinforce a narrative to aggressors that they’re powerful. When you watch the film, I hope one of the takeaways is that the Hawkins family hasn’t been destroyed by what happened to them.

Those larger forces at play can be seen visually when you look at a map of New York. A lot of the visuals that I used for inspiration include this “Mapping Segregation” article that The New York Times did in 2015. It’s an interactive map of New York City — it lets you look at where you live, and it’s broken down by race. There’s still lines separating communities by race, and the same was true when Yusuf was killed. 

When you think of a story where you’re a mob of people waiting for someone Black to come to your area — and then four Black people come to your area, without you finding out who they are — you have forced them into a perilous situation. You stop them from moving, you threaten them with bats, and you end up killing somebody before you even know who they are. There has to be a feeling of otherness when it [becomes] “Me versus this Black person coming to my community,” and I think that feeling of otherness comes when you don’t have enough interaction with people who look a little different than you and have come from a different cultural makeup than you do. 

That separation comes from larger decisions that are made from people who might have power over us and have made decisions about what communities to fund and put resources behind. That’s not an excuse for the racial hatred that came to a head that night on August 23rd, but I feel like dynamics like that put us in a position where our ability to think twice about what we’re doing is undermined. It’s undermined by an inability to be close to one another because we grow up separate in New York — and we’re convinced that we’re not. 

I kind of like to make people feel uncomfortable. And one of the things that I knew would make people uncomfortable [was] calling New York out for not being the liberal melting pot that I was told it was when I was a kid growing up here.

Hawkins’ brothers talk about how segregated New York communities were in the 1980s. Did you feel that when you were growing up in New York — that fear that you shouldn’t go into certain communities?

I grew up in Westchester, so I was kind of isolated. In Westchester, you don’t get on the train by yourself. But I know the story that my grandparents would tell from being in the South — particularly my grandfather on my mother’s side, and both my grandparents on my father’s side. Alabama and Georgia, I knew there were areas that you don’t go in — there were places that don’t want you there. Being a kid from Westchester, I didn’t really go out to New York City on my own.

Yusuf and his brothers Amir and Freddy

I imagine a challenge with Storm Over Brooklyn is figuring out how to make Hawkins a person rather than just a symbol. How do you keep his voice alive in a film where he doesn’t speak?

The best way that we could [preserve his voice] was we asked family and friends about him and made sure that what they offered stayed in the edit. One of the things that this film does is show how a name can be co-opted for what I see as a worthy cause. But it’s hard: I think the Black community needs to be able to rely on using the names of people who’ve been killed for the color of their skin in order to prove a point and keep the conversation on target. Racism can be deadly — this racism is killing us — and we need to stop it.

But I wanted to tell a story that at least honored the challenges that a family faces when their brother — when their son — becomes a martyr. A lot of times, once the marching stops, we don’t have an understanding that the family’s still traumatized. When you publicly grieve, that process takes significantly longer than when you grieve privately — when you’re able to just be by yourself and really be in the pain. So when we do use people’s names like we do for Yusuf, I think that we should really take care of the families going forward. For years and years and years, the Yusuf Hawkins family has been shouldering this pain, and yet a lot of people have been forgetting about the story. But we should remember the family. Mrs. Hawkins is who I think about. I hope that [viewers] have an appreciation for what she went through. 

You show how Diane had to sorta play a role after her son’s death, that of the grieving mother. But she didn’t do much of the public speaking — she left that to her husband, who delivered all the fiery, impassioned statements to the media.

I feel like she was swept into that whole dynamic because of Moses, and she didn’t want to be. She had lost her son, and she wanted to grieve and not be out there in marches getting watermelon thrown at her. And I feel like she has grown over the years, although the pain of having Yusuf taken from her is still raw. It was very painful [for her], but she understood the value of having Yusuf’s name evoked on a large scale [because] it would be helpful to others and would bring justice to what happened to her son. She went through it despite the pain.

I really admire her strength, and I really enjoyed speaking with her — because she didn’t want to talk, and couldn’t talk, back then. And now that she has, she’s just being really straight-up honest about what she went through, and what she liked and what she didn’t like. And I appreciate that.

Joey Fama also speaks on camera. Was that challenging to get him to talk?

Nah, I think he was willing to talk. [Laughs] The difficult part was just the red tape of bringing the camera crew into the prison. He seemed like he was being open with me — to a certain extent. But I think he was willing to talk so that he could probably convince people of certain things — which, I guess, that would be what anybody would try to do. But I was happy to at least give him the floor so he could speak. It was only him and Russell who had the courage to participate when it comes to the people from Bensonhurst. 

He did have his lawyer in the room. [Laughs] He was very careful about that. And I think that was a smart move. But I was happy to hear his perspective. When I asked him about racism growing up, he pretty much said he didn’t see it. I think that’s a small indication of how easily we can be blind to how we’re raised within a biased world. We’re not aware of it at all until maybe much later — or until a tragedy strikes.

Fama is eligible for parole in 2022. I have to assume he spoke to you partly for that reason.

I would think that would be the only reason he would. But I don’t know if it did help him. I don’t know if he came across in a way that he thinks he did. 

He’s long contended that he’s innocent he says he didn’t shoot Hawkins. It’s fair to say you don’t believe his innocence or think his imprisonment was some great miscarriage of justice?

I’m honestly afraid to speak frankly about it. This is someone who is in prison, and prison is a horrible place for anybody. But at the same time, of all of the people that I’ve spoken with and the research I’ve done, absolutely zero has come to me that says that something went horribly wrong in the criminal justice system, in relation to him.

It’s shocking watching the archival footage of racist white men in Bensonhurst making derogatory comments about Black people while insisting that they themselves aren’t racist. Thirty years later, how similar is Bensonhurst to how it was back then, demographically?

Bensonhurst is different now, but it’s still very much Italian. There is a strong Asian community that has grown in Bensonhurst, so I think it’s very much an Asian town and it’s also an Italian community. But from the research that I’ve done, the Italian community in Bensonhurst have migrated primarily to Staten Island. So, it’s a little bit  more [diverse], but it’s not like you see a rainbow of colors there.

Gibbons suggests that Sharpton did more harm than good with his marches — essentially enraging locals who would then just double down on their racist attitudes because they felt attacked. You included Gibbons’ comment in the movie: How do you feel about what he said?

I disagree with that statement. If I’m trying to understand where he’s coming from — if he’s saying that the marches through Bensonhurst by Al Sharpton agitated the community and made people who already hated the idea of Black people coming through Bensonhurst hate that even more — I think it’s possible. But I also think, “Who cares?” Like, who really cares? It’s like you go to a doctor and they give you a replacement heart because you need it, and then you complain, “Oh, I have a scar here.” Look, we’re healing people here. We’re getting justice here. 

One of the things that frustrates me about Russell — I went to an all-white high school and I’ve had to struggle with different challenges, being the only Black person, except for my brother and sister. But I disagree a lot with what Russell says. And I think there’s always an excuse to change the conversation [to] “Okay, racist things just happen.” There’s always an excuse or a way to deflect, and I think that Russell is full of those deflections. 

When Black people deflect the issue away from racism, then [white] people eat that up — they eat it up so much. But I can’t tell you that Russell is anything but honest, so I do believe that he wholeheartedly believes that Al Sharpton caused more harm than good. I respect his honesty — I just really disagree with him.

Storm Over Brooklyn brings up the interesting phenomenon that, even among racist white communities, there’s always that one token Black friend. In this situation, it’s Gibbons. Do you think that phenomenon is a real thing? 

I do believe it’s true, and I don’t exactly know why. Russell’s existence was used a little bit during the trial as a rationale to say, “Oh, we’re not racist because Russell was there,” although Russell wasn’t part of the group of people who surrounded Yusuf.  

It’s a funny dynamic. From the people I did speak with off-camera from Bensonhurst who weren’t willing to be interviewed, there was a strong love for Black culture in Bensonhurst, like hip-hop. It’s so weird how racism works, you know? 

Hawkins’ killing happened the same summer as Do the Right Thing, and in the archival images, you see a lot of protestors wearing Do the Right Thing T-shirts. I think about how, in that movie, Mookie has the debate with John Turturro’s character, who’s racist but loves Black athletes and doesn’t see a disconnect there. 

Right, and then there’s Ibram Kendi, who has that book How to Be an Antiracist, and before that he did Stamped From the Beginning — he talks about “the extraordinary Negro.” When someone has some outstanding quality about them — like Michael Jordan, we all watched that 10-part [documentary] — it just becomes larger than their race. 

Oftentimes, as a Black person, I try to understand racism. It’s like, we’re all human beings — if I grew up in a different place, different times, different community, different race, I might be somebody who fell victim to being a racist. I don’t know how to imagine being a racist and loving [the culture] of a Black person. I don’t get it. But it does happen.

It’s really interesting how Moses assumes this leadership role in the family after his son’s death. It felt like he was trying to make up for the fact that he’d been absent for so long in his kids’ lives.

That was my hunch, and I feel like that’s what [Hawkins’ younger brother] Amir felt, too. [Their father] was gone for most of their youth and he came back just a few months before Yusuf was killed. And I can’t help but think — it might be harsh — that if I were Moses, I might wonder, “Had I been around, I might have been able to advise Yusuf differently and warned him [about going into Bensonhurst].” It’s possible he fought so hard for justice to make up for not being around — and I don’t see anything wrong with that. 

I feel sympathetic toward somebody who might be in that situation, because we all deserve forgiveness to a certain extent — especially if we’re trying to redeem ourselves. I think that was part of his intent, to redeem himself as a father. Moses’ story was more at the center of the [film] at one point during the edit, but it did take a little backseat to Diane’s story. Something drew me even more strongly toward her as a person.

Yusuf and his mother Diane

Diane mentions that Moses would scold her about grieving — he told her that she had to be tough in public. It seems like that contributed to them finally splitting up for good.

I think that might have been related to it. There was a lot that was going on in that household, and they had a long relationship. I believe Moses was Mrs. Hawkins’ first love — [her] first and only love for a long time — so how he behaved and how he led the family definitely had a strong effect on her and her spirit. 

But I feel like those two opposing perspectives — “Show your tough side” and “No, I want to be vulnerable right now and by myself” — they are related to the larger [competing] perspectives in the Black community. The first is “Be tough.” I grew up during the era where parents wanted to toughen you up — there was a lot of negative reinforcement. But, now, there’s an evolution that’s more about, “My Blackness, and how I need to be according to you to be best at being Black, is bumping up against my spirit right now as a human being. As a human being, if I want to grieve, I want to do it.” 

There’s a certain sense of individual freedom that’s exercised when someone like Mrs. Hawkins can just say, “You know what? I believe in the cause, but right now I’m going to take a seat and I’m going to feel horrible for my son in [the] privacy of my own home.” That dynamic between Moses and Diane is similar to the dynamic of one generational school of thought as a Black community and the next. And I appreciate that so much: That next generation is more about, “As an individual human being, I have the right to be whoever I am, whatever I want to be, whatever I feel like being regardless of how it affects the Black community.” And I feel like that is liberation, in a sense. And so I root for Diane in that argument.

You also spoke to David Dinkins, who defeated Mayor Ed Koch in the 1989 primary and became mayor. At the time, there was some thought that Hawkins’ murder helped propel Dinkins to the mayorship, since he was the city’s first Black mayor. I’m curious if you two talked about that perception. 

Yeah, I don’t think he liked that idea. His response was one that suggested that there’s no certainty that what happened to Yusuf played a determining role in the outcome of the election. I have a feeling that it didn’t hurt. But, yeah, I don’t think that he holds on to that as something that won him the election. 

He was a talented [politician] — he had momentum and had a lot of support already — so I can’t take that away from him. But I do feel like when things like [Hawkins’ murder] happen, it does bring people to the polls — some people who might not otherwise vote. I think something similar might be happening this year in response to the George Floyd killing and others — that will have an effect at the polls in November. 

Storm Over Brooklyn is coming out now. In terms of public protests around racial equality, how do you see the summer of 2020 compared to the summer of 1989?

One thing that’s similar that’s a positive is that movement happens when people stay on top of marches. There are a lot of Black people who have been killed or abused this year — and their assailants haven’t been arrested — and I think that what worked in 1989, being persistent and actually disrupting the community where these things took place, is going to [still] be effective, as long as people stick to it. 

But one of the things that’s different is, with social media, there are a lot of different groups and a lot of different individuals who are taking action — and they might not have gotten the visibility in 1989 that they can now. Even with Yusuf, it wasn’t just Rev. Sharpton — there were other people out there organizing, and other people out there marching for justice for Yusuf — but there were limited outlets in terms of media. Right now, with social media, we’re able to see different groups — [not just] Black Lives Matter, but different individuals and celebrities who can actually have their own contribution to the movement. I think that’s an asset to us. 

And I think shame plays a big part. A lot of times when there isn’t a camera around, people can neglect their duty. Our ability to film things and to upload it right away increases our ability to shame people into behaving properly. And that might be an asset to us, also.

One thing, sadly, that seems similar is that whites simply cannot accept their role in white supremacy. There remains this knee-jerk defensiveness: “I’m not one of the bad people.” You see it in the Bensonhurst archival footage, and you see it today.

It really, really ruffles my feathers — that reality — and I wanted to capture that in this film. I think one of the biggest hurdles for progress is people don’t understand that it’s challenging to look at yourself and consider that you might be racist. It’s difficult to talk to a friend who might be exhibiting racist behavior and pull them aside. It’s hard. It’s very easy to just deny it and convince yourself that nothing’s wrong — if we can get to the heart of that, I think we can all make progress. 

People who are in denial, sometimes they’re just afraid, and they need to have the covers snatched off of them by people who care about them so they can stop doing what they’re doing, because lives are at stake. It’s like how Ed Koch condemned the marches through Bensonhurst: He said he didn’t think people should be marching through communities because it makes the community think that they’re at fault and he doesn’t think that’s fair. If I might be exhibiting racist behavior and I hear my mayor tell me that — that I’m not to blame? — I’m going to latch onto that with all my might. You’re not going to convince me that I need to change my ways. That’s a problem that we still need to face.