Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn

Movie review by
Joyce Slaton, Common Sense Media
Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn Movie Poster Image
Powerful documentary digs into tragic '80s hate crime.
  • NR
  • 2020
  • 100 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Hawkins' death is terrible, so is the racism that surrounded media coverage and public perceptions about his murder. Promotes perseverance and teamwork by showing how leaders and those in the community came together to protest Hawkins' death and others like it, showing this incident as part of a long-running fight for equality that continues to this day. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Hawkins' relatives and friends still grieve his murder, have things both wistful and angry to say about his death. It's clear the toll his loss took on them. Protesters and leaders who came together to demand justice for Hawkins and others struggling under inequality exhibit significant courage and integrity, sticking to their demands long after public furor over Hawkins had died down. Expect many incidences of racism from onlookers who chant racist slurs at protesters and say insulting things about people of color, including the "N" word. Law enforcement and political officials have questionable commentary, such as former mayor Ed Koch condemning Central Park Five (later found to be innocent of crime they were convicted of), and an officer who says Hawkins looked like "a good kid, not a thug." 

Violence

Documentary revolves around a notorious murder. Chalk outline and blood on the street where it happened. Crime is described, but we don't see Hawkins' body (we do see casket at funeral). We also see a blanket-draped body of another man killed in a racist incident, and people injured in violent protests, such as a man with a bloody head being led away by police. Protesters scuffle with one another and police, pushing and shoving. Al Sharpton is stabbed at a protest; we see news footage from media coverage and blood, from a distance. A police officer threatens a suspect, saying he'll be someone's "wife" in Rikers prison.

Sex

Romantic complications played a part in Hawkins' murder, with a spurned man jealous over his ex-girlfriend's love life. 

Language

Language includes "f--k," "f--king," "ass," "hell," "bulls--t," "goddamn." Many uses of the "N" word, often called out insultingly from White protesters who say things like "[N-word] go home." References to "spics." A man is called a "f--got." Al Sharpton refers to "rednecks in the south" as racist. We see people flipping the middle finger. A police officer says that Yusuf didn't look like a "thug" but instead a "good kid." 

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Drugs didn't play a part in this murder but they come up during the documentary, such as when an interviewee says that there's "no White people in East New York unless they were on drugs." A Bensonhurt resident yells "stop selling crack" at African American protesters. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn is a documentary about the murder of Yusuf Hawkins, a Black teenager who ventured into mostly White NYC neighborhood Bensonhurst in 1989 and was murdered by a gang of White teens. Though this movie is centered on a murder, we don't see the death or Hawkins' dead body, although we do see a chalk outline and blood on the street. We also see the body (covered with a blanket) of another man killed in a similar incident. Protests around the Hawkins murder and other crimes sometimes turn violent, and we see protesters and police pushing each other, screaming racial epithets (many of which involve the "N" word), and injured protesters, like a man with a bloody head. Cultural commentator Reverend Al Sharpton is stabbed at one protest; we see him sitting on the street with a bloody chest. A police officer threatens a suspect with sexual violence in prison, saying he'll be "banged out" by "some guy." Language includes "f--k," "ass," "hell," "bulls--t," and "goddamn," as well as many slurs, including the "N" word, "spics," "f--got," "redneck," and "thug." The documentary promotes perseverance and teamwork by showing how community members and political leaders came together to protest Hawkins' murder and others like it, and kept up the heat even after the public's attention had moved elsewhere. Drugs are mentioned briefly.

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What's the story?

In 1989, Yusuf Hawkins was just a teen having an average day with his friends when he headed to Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, to run an errand with a few friends. What happened next is unpicked in painstaking detail by YUSUF HAWKINS: STORM OVER BROOKLYN, a documentary that brings together vintage footage culled from media coverage of Hawkins' murder and the protests that followed, as well as personal interviews with Hawkins' friends, family members, and political leaders involved in the case, such as Al Sharpton and former NYC mayor David Dinkins. What emerges is a tragedy writ large and a terrible loss for one family as well as a flashpoint in race relations and criminal justice in New York City and America itself. 

Is it any good?

Fascinating and moving, this documentary digs into both the specifics of a painful case that electrified NYC's racial tensions in the 1980s, and the hole a child's death left in one particular family. Viewed from a distance, Yusuf Hawkins' death can be seen as part of a pattern of racial violence that stretches from the horrors of slavery through the terrible slate of lynchings that began in the Reconstruction era, and still continues to this day, when police violence is a political flashpoint. But to the family and friends who knew him, Hawkins was just a sweet kid who was accompanying a friend to check out a used car advertised in the paper, and got caught up in a neighborhood conflict. The power of Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn, is that it illuminates both of these perspectives. 

It certainly isn't easy to watch as Hawkins' relatives and friends describe the guy they knew, particularly when the camera lens is trained on Hawkins' mother, Diane, who frequently sobs as she recounts how much she continues to miss her son, and how easily she can picture his body lying on the street where he was killed. The pain of these loved ones is terribly clear, and terrible to see, as they continue to struggle with their grief over three decades after the murder. These moments are interspersed with a high-level view of racial politics at the time of the murder, including footage of incidents like Tawana Brawley's rape and assault allegations, the Central Park Jogger/Central Park Five case, and the police shooting death of Eleanor Bumpurs. We also hear from the Bensonhurst neighbors who were at the scene of the crime, including one man still serving time for the shooting. It's plain that there never was, and never can be, justice in the Hawkins case -- he's gone, and nothing can bring him back. But this powerful film at least gives Hawkins a place in history and helps us understand how awful his death truly was: for a city, for those who knew him, and for everyone who learns his tragic story. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Parents can talk about awareness of controversial issues, and how information and insight changes understanding and behavior. Of what value is a movie like Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn to people who don't understand racism? Do you think this movie and others like it might help change their minds about racism and violence? 

  • How do you feel about the inclusion of the footage of the protests and criminal cases connected with Yusuf Hawkins' death? How did you react to it? What elements of Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn's realism reached you emotionally? 

  • How do the people featured in this film demonstrate perseverance and teamwork? Why are these important character strengths?

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