The group was attacked by a mob of white youth wielding baseball bats who wrongly believed the teens were dating white girls from the neighborhood. The 16-year-old Hawkins was fatally shot twice in the chest.
Hawkins’ murder sent a wave of protests through Bensonhurst for more than a year, exposing an undercurrent of racial tensions throughout the city.
Just shy of 31 years later, a new documentary rehashes the slaying and its effect on New York City through a fresh lens. “Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn” made its debut Wednesday on HBO, and is available for streaming on HBO Max.
Directed by Muta’Ali, “Storm Over Brooklyn” was an official Spotlight Documentary selection for the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival. The film was also chosen as the winner of the American Black Film Festival’s first Feature Documentary Initiative in partnership with Academy-Award winning production house Lightbox.
The film’s producer, East Flatbush-born Victorious De Costa, was 12 years old at the time of Hawkins’ murder. He recalls sharing the story as his first current events article of the year upon returning to school in Sheepshead Bay, where he was living at the time, from summer vacation.
“The news got it wrong,” said De Costa looking back on that time. “I got it wrong in class. We’re just very proud that we were able to tell the truth now.”
Originally pitched to De Costa by one of Hawkins’ close friends Charles Darby via social media, the documentary digs into archival footage while capturing new interviews with those involved, including Hawkins’ loved ones, political leaders and community figures.
The filmmaker described uneasiness as he and Darby traveled back to Bensonhurst to retrace Hawkins’ steps from the train station to his death, noting that though the neighborhood’s demographics have changed, the two black men still “stuck out.”
While growing up in Brooklyn, De Costa was aware of the unspoken boundaries that dictated where he “shouldn't” be.
“Yusuf didn't have that fear,” he explained, “and for that sense of freedom he was murdered.”
Beyond the actual murder, “Storm Over Brooklyn” investigates how the case was handled by the NYPD and the city’s media outlets, drawing parallels to the contemporary movement against police brutality and misconduct.
“It's very natural to link what’s going on now to what happened then,” De Costa posed. “The truth is no matter what year this film came out we would be able to say that it’s timely. It didn't start in 89’ and it didn't end in 2019.”
In fact, Hawkins’ death was preceded by those of two other black men in New York City in the 1980s at the hands of white mobs: Willie Turks in 1982 in Sheepshead Bay and Michael Griffith four years later in Howard Beach.
On that note, De Costa says, the film derived its name from the shock that racially motivated killings deliver to outwardly liberal cities like New York, where it is often assumed that these issues don’t exist.
The incidents appear to move quickly over the city like gray clouds, raining down turmoil until the “storm” becomes a memory.