by Amin El Gamal
Outfest Under the Stars screenings bring some of the Ford’s most energized, fun and memorable audiences. As a queer person myself, it is affirming to see a venue I love hosting such an unabashedly out and proud crowd. From a gaggle of bearded Dorothys at a Wizard of Oz singalong to a first-look screening of the latest Ghostbusters iteration, the Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ Film Festival has always made the Ford’s stunning Hollywood hills setting a little more alive and a lot more sparkly.
One of my favorites this year is When the Beat Drops, helmed by first-time director and veteran choreographer Jamal Sims. The film explores Atlanta’s underground “bucking” community, in which queer men of color express themselves through the dance traditions that originated in the (usually female) cheer squads at historically black colleges. The form is often described as the Deep South’s answer to the voguing ballrooms of New York City, but the bucking community has influence all its own. In fact, the choreo in Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” video is a nod to the dance style.
Before getting in the director’s chair, Sims worked with the likes of Madonna, J-Lo and the queens of RuPaul’s Drag Race, among many others, and just finished choreographing Disney’s new live action Aladdin movie. In anticipation of the film’s LA debut at the Ford on July 19, I caught up with Sims for a quick chat.
How did you first discover the queer bucking community in ATL?
I discovered it in 1996 when I was at gay pride in Atlanta, at a club called Traxx.
How did your choreography background influence your approach to directing?
I’ve always felt like I was telling stories through dance. So while choreographing, I made sure that I was creating something that was much more than just movement. This helped me so much in my transition into a director. The story is the most important piece. Everything else is icing on the cake!
What was the most memorable moment for you working on the film? What surprised you most?
The most memorable moment was the night we were out filming a battle that was taking place inside of a club and our dancers were kicked out of the club due to limited space on the dance floor. They went outside and continued to battle in the street until the sun was almost coming up. It was very exciting!
What surprised me most while making this film was how educated and smart these guys are. Most of them have degrees. I wasn’t expecting that. It was a big learning lesson for me.
How did you safeguard against the threat of cultural appropriation as you introduce bucking to a more mainstream (and whiter) audience?
This was one of the main reasons I wanted to make this film. I wanted to make sure that our subjects were telling the story of their community. I wanted it to come from them. I didn’t want anyone else to tell it for them. What happens after this film is released, we can’t control. But we can control who gets the credit for being pioneers of this underground movement.
What have you learned from the experience and what do you hope audiences will learn from the queer bucking community?
I have learned the true meaning of “never judge a book by its cover.” We should never make assumptions about anything or anybody.
I hope the audience will walk away with a better understanding of a community that has existed for over 20 years. I also want them to feel like you can do anything you want to do. You make the rules.
What are you working on next?
Right now I am in the process of working on a scripted film that I will be directing and choreographing. I can’t wait to share with the world very soon!
Other films in the lineup include Bad Reputation, a high octane Joan Jett doc and Sundance hit that covers the rockstar’s career and her anti-war, feminist and animal rights activism; Postcards from London, the long anticipated feature from veteran queer filmmaker Steve McLean (his first since 1994!), which follows a pretty boy sex worker with an expertise in art history; and, to close out the long weekend, writer/director Madeline Olnek’s Wild Nights with Emily, a moving and madcap queer retelling of the Emily Dickinson story with none other than SNL-vet Molly Shannon playing the titular role.
I hope you join the cheerful crowds that are sure to brighten the already beautiful Ford at Outfest Under the Stars next week. While there may not be a bearded Dorothy in sight this time around, I can guarantee you will feel like you’re somewhere over the rainbow.
Outfest Under the Stars takes place from July 18 – 21 at the Ford Theatres. Go here for more info.