Documentary Review: Another murder, an earlier summer of protests — “Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn”

It seems like ancient history, now. In a lot a ways, it is.

There was a summer roiled by a murder of a black man, one that laid bare the open wound of American violence and racism long before this one.

Yusuf Hawkins was a black teen of 16, murdered because he and some friends went to check out a used car somebody was selling in a part of town their parents never warned them about.

The fact that this happened in supposedly cosmopolitan, enlightened and integrated New York City in 1989 hit America, and especially the city, as a shock.

But not filmmaker Spike Lee. His defining and most important film, “Do the Right Thing,” was still in theaters when Hawkins was murdered.  And it took civil rights marches through Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, the stabbing of an emerging activist leader and mob involvement to bring the killers to justice.

In “Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn,” director Muta’Ali Muhammad tells this story in “true crime revisited” form, interviews that dissolve into voice-over narrations over crime scene photos and mesmerizing drone shots of the locations as they are today.

Survivors, cops, a mayor, relatives of the deceased and the accused are heard from. Archival news footage and screaming newspaper headlines follow the media coverage given this murder in America’s media capital.

And the story is as convoluted, bizarre and tragic as anything that Spike Lee dreamed up as fiction. A friend sees a classified ad for a cheap, used Pontiac, Yusuf and three friends take the train with him from East New York to Bensonhurst, because, as one survivor remembers, “Nobody told us ‘That’s off limits. You can’t go there.'”

But their parents knew.

Meanwhile, in Italian American Bensonhurst, a mouthy teen named Gina Feliciano taunted a beau with threats that she’d invited Black and Hispanic teens into the neighborhood. That guy “warned” other guys, and the next thing you know, a mob armed with baseball bats is confronting four Black kids at a convenience store, a shot is fired and a kid is dead.

Hawkins’ mother Diane relates the heartless way she got the news, family members and others tell of cops warning them to “keep this quiet.” And then the Reverend Al Sharpton, new in the public eye and fresh off the debacle of the Tawana Brawley case, is summoned.

Muhammad (“Life’s Essentials with Ruby Dee”) peels layers off this story with the interviews, which include lawyers and cops involved with the case, as they contradict “the media narrative” that was pushed (probably by cops and lawyers) back in 1989.

It wasn’t going to be easy keeping racial tensions, simmering for a decade, under control. Other mobs had killed other Black men. The Central Park 5 case had exploded that spring, five young Black men railroaded into prison for a crime they were later cleared of. And the mayor, Ed Koch?

“His finger was on the trigger, too,” Spike Lee declared, interviewed outside the Hawkins home in 1989. There’s footage of Koch, leaping to conclusions about other cases where the accused are Black, to back up that argument.

The next mayor, David Dinkins, was running for office when Hawkins was murdered. He is interviewed here and seen back then, and can’t help but come off as exploiting the tragedy.

Muhammad gets so much of the story in here that it’s as if he’s re-trying the case himself. Lovely details color the film, about how the marches pushed a mafia figure to lean on the neighborhood to “give up” the criminals to the police, the lone Black Bensonhurst kid who was there that night — culpable in some ways, righteous in others, tormented about his unique part in the tragedy, the first paramedic on the scene getting the first ear full of “keep this quiet” from a cop.

And New Yorkers remember how shocked they were when those marches exploded into white riots, laying bare the racism that the city had been doing its best to ignore.

“Storm Over Brooklyn” is a tense, tight and timely film that reminds us that America itself has been doing the same — trying its best to ignore something that’s been there, for those willing or forced to see it, all along.

3half-star

MPAA Rating: unrated, some violence, profanity 

Cast: Amir Hawkins, Diane Hawkins, Rev. Al Sharpton, Joey Fama, David Dinkins, Det. Joseph Regina, (archival) Moses Stewart, Ed Koch, Spike Lee

Credits: Directed by Muta’Ali Muhammad. An HBO release.

Running time: 1:40

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