Emily Branham began work on the intimate documentary Being BeBe 15 years ago, before her fabulous subject, BeBe Zahara Benet, became the inaugural winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race in 2009. That development provides a compelling peg as we follow the ups and downs of an artist dedicated to promoting Queer Black Excellence through his elaborate shows while at the same time struggling with the nitty-gritty of how to translate a popular reality TV win into a viable entertainment career. By weaving in the conflicts of BeBe’s origins in homophobic Cameroon and the lives of other LGBTQ Africans still living there, the filmmaker tells a unique story.
Other factors are threaded through the narrative as well, like the challenge for an African immigrant of whether to make his material more “palatable” to American audiences or protect the cultural identity that is integral to his performance persona. The blow of having a whole schedule of 2020 bookings fall apart as a result of COVID-19 provides another strand, as do reflections on the killing of George Floyd and the resulting resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Shante, you stay.
That connection makes sense, since Marshall Ngwa, who created BeBe as his regal stage alter ego, made Minneapolis his adoptive American home in 2002 and the site of his early drag triumphs at local club Gay 90s. But Branham’s film arguably tries to cover too many angles, leaving some interesting points feeling like perfunctory mentions. The decision of the director to insert herself into the material via a Zoom call with Marshall as he looks back on footage of his life also seems an unnecessary distraction.
But even if Being BeBe doesn’t often go deep, the candor and infectious humor of Ngwa make it a satisfying watch — particularly for fans who have made RuPaul’s Drag Race its own vibrant chapter in contemporary queer pop-culture history. Although the absence of RuPaul as an interviewee is conspicuous, footage of a watch party for the season one finale marks that milestone as a major step forward in Ngwa’s career path.
One of the things that makes Ngwa such an engaging subject is his proud belief that dressing up as a woman doesn’t make him less of a man. His entrée into drag came during a male modeling stint when a female colleague was a no-show so he said, “Put me in a dress.” He emphasizes that he dresses up strictly to perform, not to go out and have fun.
Some of the movie’s sweetest moments are Marshall’s interactions with his family, including three sisters and a younger brother. Their warmth and solidarity provide a contrast to talk of the ongoing taboo of homosexuality in many African cultures, where bullying and physical violence are commonplace, both within family homes and in public institutions.
Ngwa is cautious when speaking of his own sexuality, perhaps partly to spare his parents any potential stigmatization. But film of his mother, grandmother, father and all his siblings watching him perform for the first time in Minneapolis provides a lovely glimpse of the support network that gives the subject his striking self-possession. He recalls that even in childhood, standing out as the star, rather than hiding away, was his protection.
The wild Afrocentric spectacles of his stage shows — with titles like Queendom, Creation and Nubia — combine the fierce theatricality of Grace Jones with hand-crafted Lion King influences. Ngwa favors original material over lip-synching, and shares the spotlight willingly with his backup singers and dancers, creating the feeling of a communal experience. Still, the doc never glosses over the difficulties of putting together elaborate shows that barely cover costs, even after garnering good press.
Despite further TV appearances as a 2018 contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars and TLC makeover show Dragnificent, BeBe’s professional story is still evolving. Consequently, the doc feels less rounded than open-ended.
Branham and co-editor James Codoyannis struggle to pin down a sturdy structural frame, jumping back and forth between the U.S. and Cameroon capital Yaoundé without much fluidity. But there’s an emotional interlude covering the memorial service for Ngwa’s college-professor father, and moving testaments from LGBTQ youth in Cameroon, their faces often blurred to guard against reprisals. “She’s living her real life,” one of them says admiringly of BeBe. “She’s not just surviving.”
Becoming “America’s next drag superstar” might not be as simple as a decree at the end of a reality contest. But Being BeBe — which tied for the Audience Award for best documentary feature at the Provincetown Film Festival with Playing With Sharks — shows at the very least that Ngwa wears the crown with honor.