Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato are the producers behind RuPaul’s Drag Race. Their production company World of Wonder has also brought us documentaries such as I Am Britney Jean, Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures, and Out of Iraq to name a few. Their new documentary, When The Beat Drops is a compelling documentary the duo worked on with Jordan Finnegan.
Directed by Jamal Sims, When The Beat Drops takes us to Atlanta highlighting the dance move that is bucking. Filled with inspiring energy, the documentary traces Big Tony and the origins of bucking, following a group of young black LGBTQ dancers through the underground dance scene of the move.
I caught up with one half of the World of Wonder duo, Randy Barbato to talk about When The Beat Drops which snatched the Documentary Feature Grand Jury Prize at Outfest last month.
You knew Jamal Sims prior to working together on the documentary
For us, it’s so much all in the family. We have known Jamal Sims since the original RuPaul Talk Show. Jamal was one of RuPaul’s dancers on the old show. He’s been part of the family for a long time and at that time, he hadn’t come out yet. I feel like he’s one of our children and I’ve watched him grow up into this extraordinary world-class choreographer and proud gay black man. Now, he’s a top-notch director. It makes me so proud.
How many years is that because you’re going way way back?
Oh, you’re going back 25 years. We’ve known him since he was like ten. This film has been in the works for over five years.
Aside from knowing Jamal, what was the pitch to get you both on board as producers for this?
Almost five years ago, Jamal and Jordan Finnegan came to us with this idea and Jamal was so passionate about it. He’d shot some footage and shared it with us. We were sold in an instant. He hadn’t directed before and we knew it was going to be his directorial debut. It never worried us, especially after seeing the footage and hearing his passion. I think for us, it’s a film about artistry and a form of dance that few people have gotten this kind of access to, but above and beyond this, it’s a film about these amazing and inspiring gay black men in Atlanta. Jamal has this incredible connection with them. I think they’re a group of people whose voices we don’t hear that often. It’s great that we got to see this beautiful film about this beautiful artistry, but it was also getting to hear and to know these amazing guys. That came through because of Jamal’s connection to them and his intimate style of filmmaking.
In the documentary, you’ve got Big Tony, Flash and their stories, what was it like to see Jamal bring it all together and to watch them on screen?
To watch the footage come in that Jamal was getting, it was incredibly moving on a bunch of different levels. We’re living in 2018 and we think that we have heard and understood the full gay experience in America. I think that these guys and their voices and experiences didn’t feel as familiar. It was moving to get to know them and to get to hear from them. It was revelatory in understanding how different their experience is and it felt important for people to hear that story. It really does feel like their voices are not the mainstream gay experience.
I think we see in the documentary, the importance of their fear of being revealed for something that they love doing so much. It feels like we’re hearing these prejudices in 2018 and makes you ask, are we moving forward and why do they exist? Are they always going to exist?
We’re living in such crazy times because it really did seem like we had such this such amazing trajectory of progress for the eight years prior to Trump. It really did feel, “WOW” and there was this locomotive and there was no stopping it, but clearly that’s not the case.
I feel that even if that trajectory was still going at the same rate that it had been three years ago, I think these guys and their stories would pretty much be the same. I feel there are so many deep-seated prejudices and homophobia and racism that the sense of equality that we all imagine, I think it will come sometime past their lifetime. Even when we get to that point where we think we’ve achieved it, we’re not even dealing with our subconscious racism or our subconscious homophobia or our subconscious self-hatred, that’s going to take a lifetime or several to get past that.
I’m getting heavy right now, but it makes me proud of this film, that it’s a little bit more of hearing people’s voices, seeing their lives play out. In many ways, that’s what World of Wonder is about. So much of our work is about shining a light on and hearing voices that are traditionally marginalized or trying to do work that highlights groups or voices that people don’t always get to hear or see.
Is that what attracted you to this and is that how you and Fenton tend to choose your projects?
We try to. We work best when we’re working on material that inspires us and that we’re passionate about. That’s our whole company. There are so many great artists that work at World of Wonder and When The Beat Drops is a dream project for us because it’s a project about artists and the tenacity of the human spirit. It’s being made by an incredible artist who might not have had the opportunity with other outlets. It’s hard for anyone to get a first-time directing gig, and for a gay black man, I think it’s even more difficult.
How much influence did you and Fenton have over the narrative as producers?
I think our influence was just to encourage Jamal, Felipe Linz (Editor) and Jordan to do their thing. This film is a reflection of Jamal’s vision. When we do our job best, we step back. Sometimes we step in when people fuck up [laughs] but that wasn’t the case.
This film is a reflection of a director with an artistic vision. The style and the intimacy of it come from Jamal.
I didn’t know what bucking was or the term. I’d seen it, but why haven’t we heard about it before? Thank God for Jamal for shining the spotlight on it.
There was a series on Oxygen called The Prancing Elites. It’s been introduced before. Funnily enough, it came on after we started making our documentary and went off the air before our documentary came out. There’s a little bit of awareness of it. Seeing the footage blew me away. I knew a little bit about it but hadn’t seen it in action like this. We’ve seen the heterosexual version of it.
What are you hoping young LGBTQ black dancers will get from and feel when they’re watching this?
That’s a really good question. One thing I hope, particularly the LGBTQ community gets is feeling the love and mad respect for the people in this film. Within our own community often, our tent is not as big as it should be. I hope that people who aren’t familiar with bucking and these guys, I’m excited for people to meet them, know them and to connect with them.
One thing I love about documentaries and stories like this is seeing where people are in a few years time. Would you like to revisit this in five or ten years?
Absolutely! What’s so inspiring is these guys aren’t just artists. They’re civic leaders. They have this real sense of community and this commitment to one another and to bettering their lives and their community. I would for it to be a series…if you know anybody.
It should be a series. There you go. New idea for you.
Consider it stolen. Did you love Big Tony?
I loved him. I loved Flash and the story with his mom.
When The Beat Drops airs on Logo TV