The problem with “say their names” – as a rallying cry, as a memorial, as a raised fist – is that eventually we stop saying their names. Time passes; new outrages overtake the old. Life goes on. This is where documentaries come in. The fine new HBO film “Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn,” whisks a viewer back to the August night in 1989 when a 16-year-old boy was shot to death for being a Black kid in a white neighborhood and to the toppling of a political titan that followed. In the process, it shows how much -- and mostly how little -- has changed.
The murder came in the wake of a series of killings of Black people in New York at the hands of white cops and civilians: Eleanor Bumpurs (an elderly woman shot by the police); Michael Griffith (hounded into traffic by a Howard Beach mob); Michael Stewart (dead after a ride in a police van). Ed Koch’s city government seemed oblivious, and the charging of five teenagers in April 1989, in the Central Park jogger rape case enflamed white attitudes against Black youths. (All five went to prison but were exonerated 12 years later when a convicted murderer confessed to the crime.)
This was the maelstrom in which Hawkins, an East New York teenager, went to the largely Italian-American neighborhood of Bensonhurst to look at a used car with three friends. Unbeknownst to them, a group of young men who hung around the local schoolyard were spoiling for a fight against a “gang of Black guys” they’d been told were coming in for a rumble. Hawkins and his friends walked into a trap. The whites had baseball bats, and one of them had a gun. Fleeing, Yusuf caught two bullets in the chest and died not long after.
Director Muta’Ali follows the standard format of archival footage mixed with modern-day interviews, but the old stuff still has the power to shock, and the new material provides perspective, distance, and sometimes heartbreaking emotional footnotes. Yusuf’s younger brother, Amir; his best friends Luther Sylvester and Christopher Graham; and cousins Darlene and Felicia Brown paint a picture of a gentle kid who was going places. His mother, Diane, recalls the pain of a grieving, introverted mother thrust into the spotlight. One of the lasting mysteries is Yusuf’s father, Moses, who had abandoned the family years earlier and returned only months before the killing. He became the public face of anger, meeting with activist leaders and speaking fervently to the press, and a viewer is left to speculate about how much of Moses’s actions were fueled by righteous sorrow, parental guilt, and love of the limelight. (Moses Stewart died in 2003.)
Among the father’s first actions was bringing in the Rev. Al Sharpton to lead the protests. Interviewed for this film, Sharpton recalls his reluctance – he was freshly in the public doghouse after the Tawana Brawley fiasco – but the family insisted, and Sharpton led the first of what would be nearly two dozen marches through the streets of Bensonhurst. They were intended to inflame and reveal the true colors of the locals standing on the sidelines, and they did; you won’t see a more savage display of naked racist hate outside photographs of the civil rights-era South.
The fury extended all the way to the mayor’s office and an election held less than a month after Hawkins’s death. Koch was out after three terms as a defining New York figure and David Dinkins, the mild-mannered Black Manhattan borough president, was in. (He lasted one term, brought down in part by the Crown Heights riots of 1991.)
Who shot Yusuf Hawkins? Four men went to trial, including Keith Mondello, who was charged as the ringleader, and Joseph Fama, who one witness identified as the gunman before recanting with the bizarre statement, “I thought I was there, but I found out I wasn’t really there at the time.” (The documentary has the videotape, which the judge refused to admit as evidence.) The shadow of Mafia pressure hung over the proceedings. Muta’Ali interviews Fama in prison; he continues to maintain his innocence. He gets out in 2022.
It’s the gulf between what people said then and now that resonates throughout this documentary, and the blind spots that continue today. The white EMT who got to the dying Hawkins first and says, “He looked like a good kid, didn’t look like a thug or anything.” The investigating detective who still maintains Bensonhurst wasn’t a racist enclave. Perhaps the oddest and saddest figure is Russell Gibbons, the single Black kid in the white mob that chased Yusuf and the one who supplied his friends with the baseball bats. Interviewed today, he looks like a man who has lost his way. “I can block it out as much as I want to and it’s going to end up catching up with me,” Gibbons says. “And it did.”
For the rest of us, there’s this film. At its center is a slightly out-of-focus figure: A kid whose name we’re asked to remember in place of the life he wasn’t allowed to lead.
YUSUF HAWKINS: STORM OVER BROOKLYN
Directed by Muta’Ali. Available on HBO. 100 minutes. Unrated (violent archival footage, racial slurs).