Located in the South Fork of Suffolk County, in the heart of the infamously rich triangle of towns that make up the Hamptons of New York (East Hampton, Southampton, and Sag Harbor), lies the hamlet of Bridgehampton – a community of less than 1,500 lower-income residents, with a high population of African-American families. The citizens of this town are often made to feel like outcasts in their part of the world, as multi-million dollar vacation homes are built up around them, squeezing the locals out of the land that they and their families have long dwelled upon. Bridgehampton was once a prominent source of potato farms in the middle part of the 20th century. But as the wealthy condo communities continue to grow, many of the jobs that once employed a large number of migrant workers have vanished. As exceeding providence begins to drown out extreme poverty, the townspeople turn to the one thing that unites them together the most – the high school basketball team.
Led by Carl “Pujack” Johnson, their inspirational former high school all-star player-turned-coach, the Bridgehampton Killer Bees boys basketball team has won an astounding nine state championship titles since 1978. Steeped in a proud history of success on the court, Bridgehampton has gained an identity for that success spilling over into an unlikely confidence in an otherwise socioeconomically depressed community.
“Killer Bees,” directed by Ben and Orson Cummings, chronicles the ups and downs of the 2017 season, as they seek to defend their 2016 championship. The team faces several challenges that most high school teams will never (and should never) have to deal with – from the limited space in their gym that requires the boys to practice at ungodly hours in the morning, to having to consistently fight the shutting down of their school that has stood for nearly 270 years. As the value of their land increases, so does the pressure from developers who want the real estate for high-value dwellings. There is a racial element in play as well, and that spills over into the students’ environment on a daily basis.
On top of the struggles they face together, the boys each have personal issues they deal with away from school. Former players have fallen into trouble with the law, often incarcerated for their involvement with dealing drugs. Coach Johnson must act as more than just a coach for his players. Aside from developing his kids as athletes, he willingly takes on the roles of mentor, father figure, and counselor preparing his students to seek higher learning after they graduate. Johnson’s story is really moving. His dedication to the kids and to the game of basketball is unequivocally tangible and genuinely affecting.
From producer Shaquille O’Neal, “Killer Bees” will have you come for the legendary basketball program, but make you stay for the love story between a coach and his big-hearted players. The film is a story of hope and the willingness to defy your surroundings, and maybe most importantly, “Killer Bees” does a terrific job showing the significance that high school athletics plays in the life of a kid, and the gravity of value that one person can add to the life of a developing youth.