Meet the 'Killer Bees,' the high school basketball team that symbolize the untold story of race, income inequality and gentrification in The Hamptons
Ben and Orson Cummings talks us through their riveting documentary on the sports team
The Hamptons is the home to some of the wealthiest individuals and most expensive pieces of real estate in the country.
But, amidst all of the glitz and glamour of the various villages and hamlets dotted across the region, is the Bridgehampton boys basketball team known as the Killer Bees, who have won nine state championships, an amount that is second only to Mount Vernon in New York.
The Killer Bees have come to symbolize much more than the joy of victory and the despair of defeat, though. Instead, their success and the struggle to keep their school open represents the untold story of race, inequality and gentrification in the Hamptons.
That made the Killer Bees the perfect fodder for a documentary. The directing team of Ben and Orson Cummings have created just that with "Killer Bees," which I had recently had the honor to talk to the pair about, and they had plenty to say on the joys of basketball and what the team have come to mean.
When did you start work on "Killer Bees"?
Ben: I got a Facebook message from a classmate of mine named Coach Carl, who knew that we had been making movies and were aware that the African American community was being gentrified bit by bit out of existence. So he proposed that if we were ever interested in doing the Killer Bee story now was the time before it was too late.
Orson: It was also good timing, because they had just won a state title. And they had a really good team. So they were planning on defending the state title, and the Coach was also thinking it would be his last year and would be a good way to go out, to win the title and to make a movie about it. There were a few twists and turns when it came to that, though.
So, what was your process for starting on the film then?
Orson: First of all, we grew up out here. We went to school there and played basketball there and knew the world intimately because it was our home. Then we had a conversation about the film that was interesting. Primarily we decided that it would be a basketball film. A sports documentary that will follow the team and the drama and whether for one season they could repeat. We love sports, we love basketball, we knew it would inherently be a story that is compelling, especially because the kids are charismatic and since people don’t know about this story outside of the area. So we would use that as a way in. The structure would be the first day of practice to the last second of the last game. And that would be a way in to talk about all the other things. Race, income inequality, and gentrification, which as you get to meet all the players, and the coach, and everyone in the community, it becomes apparent that this is not some ordinary place. Then all of those issues start to come forward. But the A plot was always about the story of the team.
Was there any particular revelation during production that really took you by surprise?
Ben: First of all, we knew these issues existed out here. But it is always a shock when you get to know someone that it is happening personally to. Like Jamari. When Jamari is sitting there and telling us that he is being evicted again it is hard to not stop being the director behind the camera, because you have spent a whole winter with this kid and he is telling you that his family is about to get kicked out of their home again.
Orson: We were also shocked when we were talking to and about players from the past, a lot of great players. One of them that kept being brought up was Julian Johnson, who we knew personally. He came over to our house and played basketball in our driveway with us. We learned that he was in prison. So we went up to film with him. That was a shock, to learn about the criminal justice system, and there’s a storyline about a lot of these players that are great, but the opportunities aren’t there. And for a lot of reasons they get swept up in some unfair situations, and to go and see him in that prison was just awful. And his crime was so small, and we learnt that he has spent 15 years in this place for something so tiny. It was really depressing and upsetting, especially since he was such a friend growing up.
Ben: Other guys like him, who we used to play ball with and had lost touch with, were just like him. They admitted that they had done long stretches in prison, and we just never knew that had happen to them.
Orson: A lot of that has to do with The Hamptons becoming such a culture of gratuitous celebrity and wealth. So people want a piece of that, and are willing to do what they can to get it, and that leads to a lot of problems.
"Killer Bees" does a great job of highlighting the disappearance of the middle class, especially in places like the Hamptons.
Orson: Part of the film for me that is really interesting is the tour, we wanted to give everyone the lay of the land and show everyone a lot of the different regions. It is a very complex, diverse place, with the beaches, the turnpike where the kids live, the mansions. I think when we got that tour, and we had that real estate broker drive us round, it was interesting to see how he spoke about all these neighborhoods and brands them and the value of all the houses. It was a total lack of awareness that there were people, everything was just a commodity. It is not a community anymore, just a commodity. It was just a matter of putting price on properties and smashing them down. I don’t think he was nefarious in his way. It was just totally neutral and he has no awareness and is only interested in the money. That kind of showed it, and people are horrified when they see it.
Ben: It is a summer resort town. So in the winter there’s not a lot going on out here and one of the things people really enjoy doing is going to a high school basketball game. And he had clearly never been to a single one.
When did you shoot "Killer Bees" then?
Ben: It was the season of 2015, that was the year they played basketball in. The good thing for us was once that basketball season was over, we were done. We then went into post.
Orson: We shot 150 hours for an 82-minute movie. So it took a lot of editing.
How did the film evolve during the shoot? Did you keep on track with your original plan?
Ben: We kind of adhered roughly to our overall plan. I mean, you never know what people are gonna say in the interview. Or, you know, if we are shooting verite of a kid not doing his homework in real time, but then him seeing him watching an African American being arrested by 5 cops on TV, that is what you end up using in the film.
Orson: I will also say there were things that came up. We had a general idea of what the chapters were that we wanted to explore. One of them for example was the school closing battle, which is really notorious and a big, big deal. One time the school was actually closed. It was all very race based the arguments, as it was a black school and the rich, white summer people were trying close it down. That is all in the film. There was a budget meeting in the school, because they were going over the vote. We knew that when that budget meeting was announced we knew that it would have something to do with that chapter, which linked back to the history of the school closing. We knew that was on our board. But we didn’t plan for that to happen. So things like that did happen. We didn’t know our friend Julian was in jail, we didn’t know he had been there for 15 years. So that became a thing. And obviously the thing with Coach Carl grew more and more and he became a central character and a positive story. The more time you spend with him, the more you realize how special he is, how important he is to the school and the community. His whole personal story is incredible. It took us a little while to realize that he was the backbone of the movie, and the star. He was a perfect subject to study.
"Killer Bees" is released in New York and Los Angeles on July 27.