Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn
Director: Muta Ali
Brutality against blacks has been the subject of movies for a long time. As has been prejudice against the race, and one of the first works I remember was Sidney Poitier’s Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner. About a black man falling in love with a white woman and wanting to get married to her, this Poitier drama was as gripping as it was revealing.
Last year at Venice, I saw Nate Parker’s American Skin – also about racial extremism. Parker’s 2016 directorial debut, The Birth of a Nation, also screened at Venice was one of the first Netflix originals. He also acted in it – a period drama set in 1831 about a slave rebellion led by Nat Turner in Southampton County, Virginia.
The movie, bought for a record USD 17.5 million, had excellent Oscar prospects, but a 1999 rape allegation against Parker, when he was a student at the Penn State University, resurfaced and ruined him. Though he was found not guilty, the suicide of the accuser did not sit well with public opinion.
So, when his American Skin was picked by the Venice Film Festival, the event’s director, Alberto Barbera, came under heavy fire. But he refused to be cowed down, stating in no uncertain terms that he was there not to judge the man, but his work. Parker’s work was a hit at Venice.
And now arrives on HBO a documentary, Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn. The movie revisits a crime which happened 31 years ago, in 1989, and which still shocks the world.
A couple of months after Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing – which was all about racial tension between Black and Italians Americans in Brooklyn, young Yusuf Hawkins was killed in the same area. He was Black who lived in a place habited mostly by whites. He was barely 16. And he was terribly unlucky. A mob had gathered to attack another Black youth said to have been in love with a White girl. Hawkins somehow got into the angry group of White men, and lost his life.
This horrific incident not only enraged Blacks, but also caused pan-American sorrow and anger. And Hawkins’s memory has been kept alive over these decades through songs. Even movies like Lee’s 1991 Jungle Fever was dedicated to the slain teenager.
Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn comes at a time when tension between Blacks and Whites in America are simmering, and the documentary tells us that the country has still a long way to go from what men like Abraham Lincoln fought for in a Civil War — and dreamt of.
Directed by Muta Ali, Storm Over Brooklyn is extremely engrossing, particularly in those scenes which show us the kind of hostility which existed between the two communities in the America of the 1980s.
In about 100 minutes, the documentary captures with a sense of urgency and poignancy the grief of Hawkins’ family. Which, though, got some semblance of justice from the authorities. But Yusuf’s mother was clearly uncomfortable attending public events to mark her son’s death. His father, Moses, was however vocal about the prevailing racial intolerance But Ali glosses over the man’s shortcomings as a parent.
The film has several surprises like the role of the mafia in nailing the culprit, Joseph Fama, who kept saying that he was innocent and that he had never seen any bitterness between the Blacks and the Whites!
Finally, what Ali underlines is that even today the Black voice is not heard. It gets lost in the cacophony of White voices.