Yusuf Hawkins: A history of racial violence

17/2 · Por HBO · Reading 3 min.

Step into 1980s Brooklin, where a young African-American man is murdered and the anger of an entire neighborhood is unleashed, demanding justice.

Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn and the systemic racism in the United States.

At 16 years old, Yusuf Hawkins was very much like any other teenager in America in the late 1980s. His life revolved around friends, school, and family. He had hopes and aspirations even though he lived in a world that would suppress them because of the color of his skin. Nevertheless, it was clear to Yusuf’s family that he was destined for greatness. The abrupt, cold-blooded, and unjust end to his life sparked a national controversy which HBO documents thirty years later in the documentary Yusuf Hawkins: Storm over Brooklyn. Three decades may have passed, but the backdrop is the same as racism continues to unravel itself in new forms, and the social movement to end it is as strong and as important as it was back in 1989. With appearances by historical civil rights figures like Al Sharpton, the film provides us with a detailed account of the events of the night of August 23, 1989, while friends, family, and legal figures associated with the case provide context and analysis from today’s lens; especially through the Black Lives Matter movement that has galvanized and polarized the country in the recent years. 

Yusuf Hawkins: Storm over Brooklyn is directed by Muta’Ali Muhammad, a New York-based filmmaker whose previous documentary, “Life’s Essentials with Ruby Dee” became Kickstarter.com’s seventh-highest funded African-American related documentary with appearances by well known Black figures such as Spike Lee and Harry Belafonte. The film utilizes archival footage and photos, witness statements, news footage, in addition to candid interviews with Yusuf’s mother, Diane; brothers, Freddy and Amir; cousins, Darlene and Felicia Brown; and friend Christopher Graham and the two friends with him during the attack, Luther Sylvester and Bensonhurst native Russell Gibbons. The documentary also includes interviews with Defense Attorney Stephen Murphy; Joseph Fama, who was convicted of the crime; Assistant District Attorney Douglas Nadjari; activist Dr. Lenora Fulani; and former Mayor David Dinkins.  

For Yusuf and three of his friends, the night of August 23, 1989, was supposed to be an uneventful night. His friend has shown interest in purchasing a 1982 Pontiac used car and Yusuf tagged along for the ride. The destination was the predominantly Italian-American neighborhood of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Little did Yusuf and his friends know that they would be confronted by a racially charged crowd of young white men as they stepped off the subway station. Rumors had been swirling around Bensonrhurts that a group of black guys was dating girls in the neighborhood. As sudden as a flash, Yusuf and his friends were surrounded by the mob of white men with baseball bats. And with no remorse nor a chance to defend himself, Yusuf was killed by a gun. In a matter of seconds, Yusuf Hawkin’s life ended and he became another statistic in the evergrowing racial violence in Brooklyn and his death became an important moment that defined the racial problems that continued to stain and plague the United States since its founding.


Lost in grief, anger, and pain, the Hawkins family was shocked when police asked them to stay silent in order to prevent civil unrest. It wasn’t until civil rights activist Reverend Al Sharpton became the family’ spokesperson that the press and the country came to understand the harrowing details surrounding Yusuf’s death. It wasn’t a common murder; it was a racially motivated attack on an innocent young Black man by the hands of a white mob. Reverend Sharpton, no stranger to protests, co-organized a series of marches in the Bensonhurst neighborhood where Yusuf was killed. Throughout the protests in the year following Yusuf’s murder, activists, protestors, and Yusuf’s family were met with intense racist vitriol from residents. If the racial motives were not as evident the night of the murder, Yusuf Hawkins: Storm over Brooklyn takes time to showcase the cruel reaction by local residents to the protests over Yusuf’s murder. With a special focus on 2021, it’s hard not to see the similarities of a time where the color of one’s skin still is a death warrant to some in parts of this country; specifically New York City. Even though a handful of young men were arrested in connection with Yusuf’s murder, the suspected shooter, Joseph Fama, remained at large before eventually turning himself in. As the marches for justice continued, the tensions reached a boiling point when Reverend Sharpton was stabbed before a protest in January 1991. The protests were not in vain as Yusuf’s death and the demands of his family and community had political ramifications that contributed to the ousting of New York Mayor Ed Koch in favor of David Dinkins, the city’s first and only Black Mayor.

Yusuf Hawkins: Storm over Brooklyn is harrowing and deeply emotive; a recollection of events that explores the 30 year legacy of Yusuf’s murders. It allows contemporary viewers, through the analysis and recollection of those who were part of these events, to put the current social and racial justice movement in perspective as the struggle is a never-ending effort. The film, selected from more than 300 submissions, is the winning project of the inaugural Feature Documentary Initiative created by the American Black Film Festival (ABFF) and Academy Award-winning production company, Lightbox, as part of their partnership to foster diversity in the feature documentary arena. A mural stands in Brooklyn to memorialize Yusuf Hawkins today; a reflection that for his community, his peers, his friends and family, the city, and the country will always remember him for the ultimate sacrifice. His loss, albeit tragic, shall not have been in vain and his memory will always live forever. 

Powerful, poignant, chilling, and ever so important, Yusuf Hawkins: Storm over Brooklyn now on HBO and to stream on HBO GO

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