Muta’Ali Muhammed revisits the historic 1989 protests of New York in Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn. The documentary weaves interviews, graphics and evidential archive footage to map the timeline of events, and the political and social aftermath of the killing of Hawkins. In August 1989, Hawkins and his friends travel to a neighbourhood to buy a car, but he ends up being fatally wounded in a racially motivated attack.
The film is well balanced, giving both sides of the case a chance to tell their version of events, including Joseph Fama, who was convicted of Hawkin’s murder. Not only does the film focus on the effects on the family and the community, but also the unrest in New York at the time, and the lackadaisical attitudes of local government in relation to race crime in Brooklyn and beyond.
The film also peppers in cultural references such as Spike Lee’s ‘Do The Right Thing’ (Lee is interviewed in archival footage) and the rise of rap group Public Enemy, which reinforces to the viewer the socio-political changes in American culture at the time.
One can’t help comparing some of the archival footage with the present-day interviews and feel unsettled with the rhetoric and views that haven’t changed in 30 years. Photographic and video evidence shows segregation and racism in Brooklyn, yet, some of the interviewees are still denying it.
I wish we could watch these documentaries thinking ‘thank goodness this is a thing of the past’, but you will be left reeling by how relevant and true the events in this film are today. Films like this should not be watched under a political flame, but with a sense of compassion and fairness. Watching a film about a family destroyed because their loved one is murdered because of the colour of their skin is something that should stir change, not division.
Here’s hoping that a documentary like this will be released in 30 years, and the events are historical with a united audience that watches in disbelief.
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