Nea Marshall Kudi Ngwa was born in Cameroon in Cameroon in 1980, and later moved first to France and then to the United States, in the latter case to attend college. He settled in Minnesota and made a great success of himself. Nothing surprising about any of this so far—many immigrants could tell versions of the same story—study hard, work hard, make a name for yourself in your chosen field. The difference is that the field chosen by this particular immigrant is drag performance; in that context, he uses the stage name BeBe Zahara Benet.
The documentary Being Bebe represents 15 years of work by director Emily Branham, who began chronicling Bebe’s life before his fame-making success as the winner of the first season of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Bebe’s life story would be fascinating even had he never won that or any other contest, not least because he was born in the dangerously homophobic country of Cameroon yet rose to fame performing a type of show that could get him harassed, blackmailed, jailed, or worse, in his native country. I certainly don’t want to imply that being a drag performer necessarily relates to any specific sexual identity or preference (and Bebe declines to place a label on his sexual preference), but I also know that it’s not safe to rely on such fine distinctions if you live in a country where same-sex activity is illegal, and people have been arrested, beaten, and jailed merely because of the way they look.
Although Bebe has enjoyed outstanding success as a drag performer, there were obstacles to be overcome in that world as well. He settled in Minneapolis and began performing at a local club, the Gay 90s, developing a distinctive style that was strongly influenced by African culture. That was something not everyone in the drag world was ready to accept, and even his accent marked him as something of an outsider. Finally, his choice to emphasize his African heritage exposed him to risk in a city with a long history of racism (news flash: it didn’t start with George Floyd).
In retrospect, it’s easy to see why Bebe is so successful—his performance style is something new and different, and is simultaneously so captivating and fabulous that you can’t help but respond positively to it. Being Bebe includes lots of clips of stage performance, and they alone are worth the price of a ticket, because Bebe is a great performer, period, not just a great drag performer. He may seem like a sure thing today, Branham documents some of the setbacks Bebe on the road to his current success. Plus, nothing is ever certain in show business, which makes the triumph of someone who truly deserves it all the sweeter.
Some of the most meaningful moments in Being Bebe involve the performer interacting with his family, who are warmly supportive of him and suitably impressed by his stage performances. It’s a particularly welcome inclusion considering the homophobia that is rampant in Cameroon (which is referenced several times). My main criticisms of Being Bebe are that the film tries to cover too much territory, and sometimes lacks a strong sense of organization, but both those quibbles are minor considerations considering how enjoyable it is to watch, and what an important story it tells.| Sarah Boslaugh
Being Bebe is available for home viewing through NewFest 2021 through Oct. 26. Further information about NewFest tickets, passes, forms of access, and the complete film lineup is available from the NewFest2021 web site.