Emily Branham started work on the intimate documentary Be BeBe 15 years ago, before her fabulous subject, BeBe Zahara Benet, became the first recipient of RuPaul’s Drag Race in 2009. This development provides a compelling peg as we follow the ups and downs of an artist dedicated to promoting black queer excellence through his elaborate shows while struggling with the details of how to translate a victory. from popular reality TV to a viable entertainment career. By mingling with the conflicts of BeBe’s origins in homophobic Cameroon and the lives of other LGBTQ Africans who still live there, the filmmaker tells a unique story.
Other factors are also brought up in the story, such as the challenge for an African immigrant to make his material more “acceptable” to American audiences or to protect the cultural identity that is integral to his performance character. The hard blow of the collapse of an entire 2020 booking calendar in the wake of COVID-19 provides another strand, as do the reflections on the murder of George Floyd and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement that resulted from it.
The bottom line
Shante, you stay.
This connection makes sense, as Marshall Ngwa, who created BeBe as his royal stage alter ego, made Minneapolis his adopted American home in 2002 and the site of his first drag triumphs at the local Gay 90s club. But Branham’s film arguably tries to cover too many angles, leaving some interesting points like superficial mentions. The director’s decision to fit into the material via a Zoom call with Marshall as he revisits footage from his life also seems like an unnecessary distraction.
But even though Be BeBe doesn’t often go in-depth, Ngwa’s candor and contagious humor make her a satisfying watch – especially for fans who have made RuPaul’s Drag Race its own vibrant chapter in the history of contemporary queer pop culture. While RuPaul’s absence as an interviewee is glaring, footage from an evening standby for the Season 1 finale marks this milestone as a major milestone in Ngwa’s career path.
One of the things that makes Ngwa such an endearing subject is his pride in believing that dressing as a woman does not make him less than a man. His entry into dating came on a stint in male modeling while a coworker was away, so he said, “Put me in a dress.” He emphasizes that he dresses strictly to play, not to go out and have fun.
Some of the film’s sweetest moments are Marshall’s interactions with his family, including three sisters and a younger brother. Their warmth and solidarity contrast with discussions about the continuing taboo of homosexuality in many African cultures, where bullying and physical violence are rife, both within family homes and in public institutions.
Ngwa is cautious when discussing her own sexuality, perhaps in part to spare her parents any potential stigma. But the film of his mother, grandmother, father and all of his siblings watching him perform for the first time in Minneapolis gives a nice glimpse into the support network that gives the subject his startling composure. . He remembers that even in his childhood, standing out as the star, rather than hiding, was his protection.
The wild Afrocentric shows of his stage shows – with titles like Queen, Creation and Nubia – combine the fierce theatricality of Grace Jones with Lion King influences. Ngwa favors original material over lip sync and willingly shares the spotlight with her choristers and dancers, creating the feeling of a common experience. Yet the doc never glosses over the difficulties of putting together elaborate shows that barely cover the costs, even after garnering good press.
Despite other television appearances as the 2018 nominee on RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars and TLC makeover show Dragnificent, BeBe’s professional history is still evolving. As a result, the doc feels less rounded than open.
Branham and co-editor James Codoyannis are struggling to define a solid structural framework, going back and forth between the American and Cameroonian capital Yaoundé without much fluidity. But there is an emotional interlude covering the memorial service for Ngwa University professor father and the moving testimonies of LGBTQ youth in Cameroon, their faces often blurred to guard against retaliation. “She’s living her real life,” one of them said in awe of BeBe. “She doesn’t just survive.” Becoming “America’s Next Cruising Superstar” might not be as easy as an executive order at the end of a reality show. But Be BeBe at the very least shows that Ngwa wears the crown with honor.