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New HBO doc revisits 1989 Yusuf Hawkins murder

Newsday TV critic Verne Gay talks to Muta’Ali, who directed HBO's documentary "Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn"  debuting on Aug. 12. It tells the story of Hawkins, a Black teenager who was murdered in 1989 by a group of young white men in Brooklyn. Credit: Newsday

Nearly 31 years ago, on the night of Aug. 23, 1989,  Black teen Yusuf Hawkins and three friends left their East New York neighborhood to check out a used Pontiac for sale in largely Italian American one Bensonhurst. They were set upon by a mob. Hawkins, 16, was shot twice, and died. What followed changed the city, and nation. 

 Now recalling that notorious incident is  the documentary: "Yusuf Hawkins: Storm over Brooklyn," which premieres Wednesday at 9 p.m. on HBO. It includes interviews with Hawkins' mother Diane, brothers Freddy and Amir, and Hawkins' friends Luther Sylvester and Christopher Graham, among many others. 

 I spoke this week with the director, Muta’Ali Muhammad — who spent years making this extraordinary film and who is, incidentally, the grandson of Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis. An edited version of our interview: 

How'd this project come to you? 

 This all started when Charles Darby, one of Yusuf's childhood friends, said that Yusuf had come to him in his dream and said 'never forget me.' He reached out on Facebook and someone connected him to [my production partners]. Charles did a lot of the groundwork and laid the foundation of trust between us and the family.

 Mrs. Hawkins does feel like the center of the film — her humanity, and her range of emotions seem as fresh, or as painful, as a minute ago. 

 I was happy to come to that conclusion [too] because oftentimes Black women don't get to be the center of the story … She is still shouldering this pain. It's still raw and I wish it weren't like that for her but at least she was able to share what she went through.

The film absolutely is from the family POV. 

 It was important to see from the inside what families go through [because] we understand Yusuf represents more than just a 16-year-old Black boy [but also] other Black people who are killed for the color of their skin. We never really get an inside look at the family, and how, as a mother, it was so critical for [Diane] to be strong but how when you need to sit down and take on the pain? 

 How is she doing now? 

This hasn't destroyed her. She still smiles. Still has her own life [and lives now in Bed-Stuy]. She's doing her thing. [But] a lot of the other people [involved] moved out of New York, [like] Amir [14 at the time] who moved out and hasn't come back. You can imagine — not only is your friend and brother taken away from you, but you go through the trauma of those marches through Bensonhurst, and then all the trials.

 The racist venom from the Bensonhurst community seen during the marches — at the time on TV, and just as much now in your film — was shocking. How'd you process that in your own head?

You know, I don't remember feeling shocked [over the footage]. I don't remember feeling anger either. I wasn't surprised [but] the one thought I did have is, I wonder what these people are doing today? I wonder if they regret what they did back then? Sometimes we are literally different people than we were thirty years ago and I hope they've changed.

Another obvious question, whatever happened to Gina Feliciano, who unintentionally got in the middle of this when the rumor spread that she had invited Black kids to her 18th birthday party? 

We were told Gina passed away [and] got confirmation from her daughter. 

Joey Fama, the alleged shooter, eligible for parole in 2022?

We went up to [Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora] to interviewed him. I can't speak to what is real or what is not real but he shared what he wanted us to hear … The frustration I had is that there were thirty people out there that night and people are still afraid to tell the whole truth. 

Including whether he was even the shooter?

He's not in jail for murder in the first degree but for what I'm told is something called depraved indifference murder. So there is no one literally in jail for the [shooting]!

Rev. Al Sharpton — in a controversial stance at the time — says here those two dozens-plus marches from '89-91 and the resulting media attention would put pressure on the community to cough up the killer and get other members of the mob in front of a judge. Shrewd in hindsight? 

By having hundreds march through Bensonhurst he knew there would be very active counter-protests and by keeping the pressure on [incumbent Mayor Ed] Koch and [his challenger David] Dinkins knew they'd have to take a stand too. It also forced the residents — whose businesses were taking a hit — to consider turning the culprits in. It was extremely effective. 

 I was gonna ask you how much the world has changed in the years since, but George Floyd has already answered that question. What is the legacy then? 

 Standing up for what's right and getting in the faces of communities that hide behind denial … The solution is persistence, like marching 29 times. I'm really hopeful about what's happening in honor of Breonna Taylor [the 26-year-old medic shot by Louisville police in March] to make sure people are held accountable.

By the way, how'd the family like the film?

Really liked it [which is] so emotionally relieving because without that, this wouldn't really mean anything. 

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