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A Bridgehampton ‘Killer Bees’ Movie Review Gets It Right

Stephen Whitty reviews the sports documentary for Film Journal International.

The movie that local boys Ben and Orson Cummings made about the Bridgehampton School Killer Bees basketball team premiered on Wednesday, July 25. Among the best reviews, besides The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, was this one in Film Journal International.

Scene from
Coach Carl Johnson in “Killer Bees,” Photo: Courtesy HIFF

KILLER BEES
Reviewed by Stephen Whitty

The new line about playing sports isn’t that it builds character—it reveals it.

And, sometimes, it reveals something about an entire community.

Killer Bees follows a Bridgehampton, Long Island basketball team over their 2015 season. And the first adjustment many audiences will have to make is realizing how little they really know about the Hamptons and the people who live there.

Yes, it is full of ridiculous mansions, hedge-fund billionaires and polo ponies. But a few generations ago, a lot of it was still potato fields. And in the ’40s and ’50s, employment agencies recruited African-Americans from Virginia and North Carolina to work them.

They lived in shacks, even in chicken coops. Many of them stayed past the harvest—and some of them held on even after the potato fields got plowed under and work became harder to come by. After all, this was their home now, too.

And as Killer Bees shows, plenty of them are hanging on, mostly in the poor sections of Bridgehampton. But it’s grown harder, as affordable housing grows even scarcer. And the newer, richer residents start wondering why they even need a public high school (or the taxes that support it).

And so, enter the Bridgehampton Killer Bees—here not only to win, but to prove that they, and their school, matter.

The sometimes scattered but still striking movie follows the same path as other inspirational sports films. We meet dedicated coaches, natural athletes and irrepressible clowns. There’s a reputation at stake—the basketball team is one of the most successful in the state. And there’s the natural, dramatic progression of watching them battle through another season.

But although the games themselves provide movement and energy, this could just as easily be a movie about the chess team or the robotics club. It’s not really about the sport. It’s about the people involved in it, and the town it’s played in.

There’s their great coach, the quietly intense Carl Johnson, who was once a star player on the team himself. A stupid accident with a friend’s shotgun helped squash his potential career. But he came back to help another generation—and as much as he wants them to win games, he wants them to succeed in life, too.

A scene from
A scene from “Killer Bees” by Orson and Ben Cummings

There’s the team—poor and working-class, almost completely African-American. (The one white kid, a shy farmboy, sticks out like a stalk of wheat—although he’s completely accepted, on and off the team). They’re sharp, strong, focused. Until you see them in tears after they lose a game and you realize, they’re also still just kids.

There’s the community itself, in all its different permutations. Like the real-estate guy who only sees the rapid gentrification as “a big win for the developers. Big win for everybody!” Or the white cop who talks honestly about the rich summer people who take drugs and the poor year-round people who deal them, and how only one kind ever seems to go to prison.

And then there are the wonderful characters who have a foot in both worlds—like Joe Zucker, a celebrated modern artist who, in between paintings, spends time at the high school as Johnson’s assistant coach, keeping track of the stats and cheering the boys on.

It’s a movie made with an insider’s knowledge (directors Ben and Orson Cummings are both proud graduates of the school) and affection (Shaquille O’Neal is one of the producers, as is art-world titan Larry Gagosian). And yet, while it has heartwarming moments, it’s not a predictable, eager-to-please entertainment.

A boy acknowledges he and his mother are going to be evicted, because their landlord stopped paying the mortgage. Longtime residents mourn the talented athletes who ended up in jail instead of in the NBA. Inequality and injustice loom large.

The film ends along with the season, and that’s a shame; “Always leave ’em wanting more” might have been a good motto for vaudevillians, but documentarians need a different credo. We’ve come to know these kids. We need to know what happened next.

Did that boy and his mother ever find another place, or are they in a shelter now? Or the kids who had college offers yet were too cavalier—or just plain scared—to take the next step and visit the campuses, send in their applications. Did they finally manage to get it together? Or have they already joined the sad ranks of their community’s used-to-be-somebodies?

Killer Bees doesn’t have the answers. But at least it raises some of the right questions.

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