Director: Emily Braham
Bebe Zahara Benet will never escape the moniker of first ever winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race, and mostly she doesn’t want to, but in the years since her 2009 victory, there have been good times and bad. Emily Branham’s new documentary, Being Bebe, showing at BFI Flare, revisits footage from the intervening years and asks BeBe to reflect on where she is now, a task which proves indistinguishable from where she came from.
What sets Being BeBe apart is Branham’s contrasting emphasis on life in Cameroon for the LGTBQ+ community which BeBe still feels connected to. As well as charting the biography of Nea Marshall Kudi Ngwa who moved to Minneapolis to becomes Bebe Zahara Benet, Branham records interviews with Cameroonian residents whose faces remain obscured in order to protect their identities in a place where recrimination and violence may follow. A local pastor explaining that two men were jailed for drinking Baileys, considered to be an effeminate choice, is a case in point.
But through Bebe’s experience, Cameroon is also an inspiring place, feeding through the shows that she created in the years after winning Drag Race and culminating in a black excellence drag show in New York in 2020. Similarly, the openness and support of Bebe’s family are crucial, frequently referenced in conversation and even appearing in talking heads and documentary footage as they finally and proudly see Marshall perform as Bebe. Branham nicely balances these two aspects in the documentary, shining a light on the continued struggles of many who must conceal their sexuality while weaving through Bebe’s biography and more positive relationships
Staged as a recent interview with Bebe conducted over Zoom by Braham in which the star watches older clips and comments from her 2021 perspective, it works remarkably well as both a recap and an examination of the next chapter. And while Bebe retains some personal control over information including the remarkably persistent requests to define her sexuality, this proves a nonetheless candid and engaging exploration of a remarkable individual.
By the end, Bebe is no longer defined by her role in Drag Race and, while an acknowledged and appreciated part of her career, BeBe has made space for herself, one in which a while new chapter is just getting started.
Being BeBe is screening at BFI Flare 2022.