Jamal Sims didn’t want to do to bucking what Madonna did to voguing. A Southern dance style inspired by historically black colleges and universities’ (predominately female) majorette troupes, bucking is unlike depictions of New York’s ball culture on FX’s Pose and in Madonna’s 1990 “Vogue” music video. It’s a tight-knit community of black, gay men who’ve transformed a dance of thrusting body movements popularized in Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” video into a second family, one wary of outsiders like Sims.
The Step Up choreographer, who recently wrapped work on Disney’s live-action Aladdin, makes his directorial debut with When the Beat Drops. It’s a documentary on Atlanta’s bucking elite led by Anthony “Big Tony” Davis, who mentors young buckers while also cultivating the dance style’s legacy. For Sims, convincing Davis and the teams that he wasn’t co-opting their stories required vulnerability. Sims knew what it meant to have a passion for dance and the struggle of being a black artist. He also understood being closeted. After years working in Hollywood, Sims hadn’t publicly come out — he’d go on to do so, quite publicly, marrying his longtime partner on the 2014 Grammys telecast officiated by Queen Latifah. “I was gay. I was black. It felt like I was a part of what they were going through,” Sims tells EW.
When the Beat Drops airs August 9 at 8 p.m. ET on Logo. It’s produced by Jordan Finnegan and the team behind RuPaul’s Drag Race — World of Wonder’s Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey. Sims pitched the duo while choreographing for their hit show, and together they recently won Outstanding Documentary at this year’s Outfest, one of the largest LGBT film festivals in the country. As one of few working gay, black directors in Hollywood, it’s an honor Sims is quite proud of. “I love being on the frontline of this movement,” he says. “Hopefully, I’ll open doors for to other gay, black filmmakers.”
Watch the trailer below, and read on for a condensed version of EW’s conversation with the filmmaker and producers.
JAMAL SIMS: [In 1996], I went to Atlanta Gay Pride and to a club called Traxx. I was on the dance floor, and all of a sudden these guys start marching in. Everybody knew to get off the floor and watch out. They had on these Hooters outfits, and they battled. I watched all five hours. That’s how I experienced it for the first time. It felt really raw. As a choreographer and professional dancer, it was something I was like, “Why is this not in L.A.? I’ve never seen it in New York.”
RANDY BARBATO: It was before [Oxygen’s reality TV series] The Prancing Elites Project. We started making it [in 2013], and then we heard about that series and were like, “Oh my God.” Then we realized we kind of had the original story and the original buckers. We’re making a different story.
Striking a different Pose
SIMS: Because we’ve been working on the film for five years, I didn’t know that Pose was going to happen. Those worlds are two different worlds and communities. When I was talking to them, they were like, “Well, this ain’t the ball scene.” They wanted to really be clear that this is another thing. I’m not trying to make it all one scene.
BARBATO: There’s something in the air. We would have liked it to come out a long time ago. Some things take time.
Being black, gay, and bold
FENTON BAILEY: Historically, the greatest challenge with the LGBT+ community is the closet. We are invisible, and we can remain invisible.
SIMS: I come from a generation where we just don’t talk about it, especially in the black community. You don’t even talk to your parents about it. You just kind of run on by. Nobody is asking the questions? You’re fine. They know I had been through that.
BARBATO: We need to hear and see from more queer people of color. When the Beat Drops is a great example of it. That is something that attracted us to it.
Surpassing Hollywood’s homophobia
SIMS: I worked with pop artists who always try to protect their image, so it’s not popular to have a gay choreographer around. I didn’t mention my sexuality when I would work with certain artists or certain rappers. As I was doing the film, I ended up saying forget this. The younger generation could be as bold and do it in the streets. They don’t care. I need to really start thinking like them.
BARBATO: Our history as producers in Hollywood is we always expect people to say No to everything we do. Other people have different Hollywood stories. It might be partly because we’re gay. We just tend to be more attracted to the marginal because that’s who we are.
SIMS: Even black friends that are actors, they still are in the closest because they don’t want to be outed. They want to be up for roles where they can play straight men. That always lets me know that we’re still not there. They won’t go to the clubs because some of the producers are out, and they’re afraid to be outed to the casting agencies. A lot of my white friends don’t feel like that.
Breaking out of dance
SIMS: Unfortunately in Hollywood you get pigeonholed. Once they know you as one thing, it’s hard to get you out of that for anybody to see you as anything different. People have always said, “Oh yeah, that’s the choreographer Jamal.” Yeay, but I’m so much more. I’m a director as well. That’s why this film is important to me. I wanted to show I can tell a great story. I could have characters that you care about as well as some great dances.
BAILEY: What you see in the film are these really resilient characters who take all sorts of challenges, disadvantages, and limitations and manage to turn out this amazing, inspiring work. Jamal’s work in making this film has not been dissimilar in terms of lots of challenges and false starts.
SIMS: I’ve been trying [to get into directing film] for over 10 years. As a choreographer, you’re directing the dance. I’ve always had a reason [for] why we dance and what are we doing. I think I’m on my 40th film that I’ve worked on. [Directors,] they’re cutting off the feet. They’re cutting off the arms… I needed to get behind the cameras.
Changing America’s attitudes
BARBATO: I do think we feel a bit of a responsibility to be visible, vocal, and consisted. It is about the work. Even before Drag Race, the amount of hours of work we produced on trans and gays — long, long ago. We’re hundreds of years old. That’s just been our calling. Maybe it is more important now than ever, and yeah, we have gotten a little bit more political.
BAILEY: I don’t think it’s about making the work more political. The work is political without, necessarily, issues of foreign policy.
SIMS: This film is … another bold step. I know that some people aren’t gonna like it. I think it will make you pay attention. I have uncles and cousins who came to the [Outfest] screening. They came up to me, and they were like, “This is the best thing I’ve ever seen.” That’s huge. Back in the day, it was “don’t be a sissy,” but now it’s different. You have to put it out there. People have to see it in order to say, “Maybe I do need to think a little differently.”
These interviews have been edited and condensed.