Review: 'Being Bebe' a Joy to Watch

by Roger Walker-Dack

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday April 1, 2022

'Being Bebe'
'Being Bebe'  (Source:Outfest)

It's been a very long time since we watched any of the multitude of "RuPaul's Drag Race" series. The show has been stuck in a creative rut as it has dumbed down over the years, and it seems well past its sell-by date.

However, since watching "Being Bebe," the compelling new documentary about the charismatic and genuinely talented Bebe Zahara Benet, we may need to rethink this — not because we want to be drawn back into the TV's superficiality, but because this film is a reminder that behind all those over-painted faces there maybe be more BeBe's with touching stories to tell.

Newbie filmmaker Emily Branham took a shine to BeBe, a.k.a. Marshall Ngwa, back in 2006, before the world came to know about him. At that time the tall good-looking man from Cameron in West Africa was living in Minneapolis and doing amateur drag in a local gay bar. Even then he stood out, as his costumes and performances were heavily immersed and inspired by African culture. In a city so rampant with racism (it was where George Floyd was later murdered) BeBe was proud of his roots, even if he was reluctant to discuss his sexuality.

Then, in 2009 — in the second part of this rags-riches-rags rollercoaster story — he was spotted performing by RuPaul and invited to fly to L.A. for the very first "Drag Race" program. History was made when BeBe won the contest although, even to this day, he doesn't like to be called a drag queen.

The win catapulted him into a whirlwind of personal appearances, drag conventions, and performances throughout the U.S. He was always ambitious, and was never content just doing what was expected of him as a reigning queen; he always looked to expand his career opportunities. He was the first one from "Drag Race" to write and record his own music, and, with his heavily choreographed acts featuring a host of backup singers and dancers, he developed a stunning show on his own.

Success had him packing up and moving to Brooklyn, but after a few years he realized that the streets were not paved with gold. When work dried up almost overnight, he packed up again and moved back to Minneapolis and his family for reasons never fully explained in the film. Bravely, he allowed Branham's cameras to capture this downward spiral of his life, which, at the time, had no obvious path to recovery.

BeBe is disarmingly honest throughout, which is not only a worthy character trait but speaks highly of his remarkable and refreshing attitude to life. Instead of being angry and annoyed to find himself back performing in the small local bar where he started, he uses the time and energy to re-think and re-strategize his next move.

Blessed with good friends and fellow performers he leans on them to create a brand new show, which turns about to be another critical success. However, performing an expensive show in small clubs means he has no chance to recoup the investment, or even pay the crew all they are due.

We know by now, having gotten a good sense of who BeBe the person is, that this will not be the end of the story. Even with COVID-19 turning his life upside down, we have enough faith to know BeBe will get through it all and come out on top. No spoilers here, but you will not need a box of tissues when the final credits roll.

Watching BeBe at work is nothing less than inspiring. The attention to detail and the sheer passion he invests has nothing to do with making a fortune (God forbid), but having a sense of pride and achievement. It's so easy to appreciate why his close-knit family are so proud and supportive of him.

BeBe also takes a great deal of pride in his roots, and he encourages audiences to join in shouting out "Cameroon!" — even though back home his sexuality (which he ends up talking about) could get him imprisoned.

Getting to know Bebe closely via this film is an eye-opener that may make us think a little deeper about what happens to drag queens after their five minutes in the "RuPaul" spotlight. It's also a sheer joy to watch.

Roger Walker-Dack, a passionate cinephile, is a freelance writer, critic and broadcaster and the author/editor of three blogs. He divides his time between Miami Beach and Provincetown.