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Oct 9, 2017 5:15 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

'Killer Bees' Documentary Premieres At Hamptons International Film Festival

Killer Bees, from left, Matt Hostetter, Elijah Jackson, coach Carl Johnson, Max Cheng and J.P. Harding. DREW BUDD
Editor's Note:

SPOILER ALERT: This article contains specific details of scenes from the "Killer Bees" documentary and from the Bridgehampton boys basketball 2015-2016 season. 

Oct 10, 2017 2:35 PM

It’s 5 a.m., a pitch-black morning, and the Killer Bees—first J.P. Harding, then Josh Lamison, then Elijah Harding—trudge into the Bridgehampton School gym for a practice during the 2015-16 boys basketball season.

That was the opening scene of the much anticipated documentary “Killer Bees,” which made its world premiere at the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor on Friday night as part of the 25th annual Hamptons International Film Festival. It also had showings at the UA Theaters in East Hampton and Southampton as part of the festival.

The film has been the talk of the town since brothers Benjamin and Orson Cummings—former Bridgehampton School students who wrote, directed and co-produced the documentary—were seen filming at various games throughout the 2015-16 season, which ended with the Killer Bees coming up just short of a return trip upstate to defend its state title.

A number of familiar faces appeared in the film, none more than Carl Johnson, who was a part of seven state championship teams, three as a player and four as a coach, including the team’s last state title in 2015. He coached at Bridgehampton for 27 years before retiring at the conclusion of last season.

But the players from that season—particularly Tylik Furman, Josh Lamison, Matt Hostetter and Jamari Gant—all had significant roles in the documentary, as did assistant coach Joe Zucker.

While the film centered on Bridgehampton basketball, past and present, it didn’t shy away from other topics that surround the team and its school, including income inequality, gentrification and race.

“Killer Bees” was the first-ever documentary for the Cummings brothers, who have written and directed four narrative films prior. They elicited the help of Hilary McHone, who had produced documentaries before, and also found help in executive producer Glenn R. Fuhrman, director of photography John Foster and editor Alex Bayer, just to name a few.

In a question-and-answer session following the premiere on Friday night, the Cummings brothers said they also got a tip from someone in the film industry on the direction a documentary can take. “Know your in and know your out,” Benjamin Cummings said his friend called it.

“He suggested a pretty good story that lends itself to that—a basketball season,” he continued. “The season starts, you follow the season, and then, when the season ends, that’s the end of the story. Within that, we had chapters that we wanted to address.”

Gant’s and Johnson’s personal stories were part of those chapters. Gant speaks about how his mother and siblings were evicted from their East Hampton home and had to move to Bridgehampton.

The coach’s chapter, meanwhile, focused on an incident that changed the trajectory of his life.

Johnson had his playing career derailed when his right hand—his shooting hand—was severely injured after his senior year when a friend accidentally shot it with a shotgun. Although it ended his chance of becoming the college prospect everyone thought he was, the incident led Johnson down the road of becoming a coach.

There were many other chapters to the story, including “S.O.S.,” or the “Save Our School,” initiative led by the Bridgehampton community in the 1980s that ultimately saved the school from being closed. The Bridgehampton Child Care Center, a hub for the community, also was highlighted.

The players, many of whom are now in college, said they enjoyed the movie. They said they appreciated how the movie portrayed them, how much effort they put into the season, their raw emotions during the games and how the team played.

“I think it got its points across,” Hostetter said of the movie. “I think it shows how powerful our community is together as one big family.

“The hardest part, of course, was reliving it. Being that one step away from going upstate again. But it happened,” he added.

While the initial response to the movie was positive—it garnered a thorough round of applause from those in attendance at the premiere—there were critics of the movie as well, some of them former players and students of the school.

Ron White, who was on the state championship winning teams of 1996, 1997 and 1998, and was named the successor to Johnson as head coach of the Bees, questioned some of the filmmakers’ choices. White, who also is the Bridgehampton School Board president but stressed that he was speaking solely as an alumnus and citizen of Bridgehampton, said that while everything in the documentary was true, he felt there weren’t enough positives included in the movie.

He said he personally emailed the Cummings brothers and sent them numerous subjects from the community who had positive stories, yet the filmmakers decided to go to a correctional facility to speak to Julian Johnson, a former player and captain of the 1986 team and cousin of Carl Johnson, who had been incarcerated and spent 15 years in prison. Julian Johnson, according to Carl, is now out of jail and doing well—but that didn’t make the film.

Many of the positive stories that White said he brought to the filmmakers were not included.

“The entire time, they said they wanted to celebrate the district, they wanted to highlight the rich tradition of basketball and how the district strives amongst the rich and the famous. What they put out is a little contradictory,” he said.

“In any district you go to, any area you go to, any organization, you can pick out situations to make it a dire story. And I understand they had to create a story that people gravitate to … the picture they painted was very sullen, very melancholy.

“They filmed a lot of events that showed togetherness and all of these amazing feelings that we had—and, for some reason, those didn’t get in.”

Nick Thomas, who helped lead the Killer Bees to the first of three consecutive New York State Class D Championships in the 1990s, and went on to play collegiate basketball at New York University, agreed that there were many players, and many success stories: “Our legacy is bigger than one person.”

White was the last person to ask a question during the Q&A following the premiere and brought up many of those points, along with why certain individuals did not make the final cut of the film.

Anne Chaisson, executive director of the Hamptons International Film Festival, who led the Q&A session, explained that a film’s focus, specifically a documentary, has to be on fewer characters rather than more.

“It’s hard to follow a lot of different story lines, and that’s really the hardest part for a documentarian—finding those few characters to take you on this ride,” she said. “Unfortunately, it does mean things get left out.”

Benjamin Cummings said that while White’s points were fair, he and his brother were confident in the story they eventually told, which was the 2015-16 Killers Bees season, led by Carl Johnson. He said they shot some 150 hours of film for a documentary that was 82 minutes long.

“The number-one roles that we were following were the kids on the team,” Orson Cummings explained. “Coach Carl was the central character for us. Beyond that, his story was so uplifting and so positive that we thought that was enough to follow.”

The brothers are now looking for a distributor for the film after its premiere locally.

Ron Gholson, who played for Bridgehampton from 1983 to 1987, is credited by many for getting the ball rolling on the documentary. He grew up with Ben and Orson Cummings and sent them a Facebook message after the Bees won their last state title in 2015, letting them know that Bridgehampton and its basketball team would lend itself to a great story.

Gholson attended the 9 p.m. show on Friday night in Southampton. While standing in line with his wife, Debra, and son, Tyus, Gholson said he was proud to see so many people come out to watch a film based on his school and his team.

He said while he would have liked a more clear conclusion of the film—such as making clear that all of the 2015-16 players graduated from high school and attended college—he said he appreciated the film for what it was and further appreciates it for the conversation it has started among fellow alumni.

“Killer Bees” isn’t simply an open-ended story, Gholson said—it’s merely the start.

“I’m glad the movie was made. It has now ignited this conversation, this buzz, among the alumni that there is another story that can be told from this documentary,” he explained. “Let’s get together and make something happen, whether it’s writing a book, an article, or creating a podcast—or making another film.”

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