By Jim Gilles
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 8/20/21 – Screening at Outfest 2021 on Saturday, August 21, 8:30 pm at the Clive Davis Theatre of the Grammy Museum on Olympic Boulevard is Being BeBe (2021), a documentary about BeBe Zahara Benet, the first ever winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Born Marshall Kudi Ngwa in the African county of Cameroons, BeBe Benet is the drag performative persona of Marshall – which he created more than 15 years ago while living in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The film traces Benet’s early years growing up in a deeply homophobic Cameroon to gaining prominence on the local amateur drag scene in Minneapolis. Emily Branham began work on the intimate documentary Being BeBe 15 years ago, before her 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.
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. Being BeBe doesn’t often go deep, but the candor and infectious humor of Ngwa make it satisfying to watch – particularly for fans who have made RuPaul’s Drag Race a big part of contemporary queer pop-culture. 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. As he says in the film, “Sometimes I don’t like the word ‘drag.’ I prefer to think of myself as a female illusionist.” 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. Unfortunately, the absence of RuPaul as an interviewee is conspicuous – particularly since it was RuPaul who helped to launch BeBe’s career into an arena beyond small town drag shows.
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. It is important to understand that Marshall Ngwa comes from an upper-class familial background in the Cameroons, as his father was a university professor who often advised politicians. He had originally come to the United States on a student visa to study at the university, something his younger brother would do as well, earning his Ph.D. in the U.S.
The Cameroonians are generally Francophone, as the French took over the country as a protectorate after the Germans lost their colonies at the end of World War I. The northern part of Cameroons was given to Britain to control and lumped together with their control over Nigeria. The south remained in French hands until the late 1960s. The country uses both English and French as official languages and the majority of the population is Roman Catholic. Because Cameroonian society has no room for LGBTQ people, they survive by keeping their identities hidden. Marc Lambert Lamba, LGBTQ Rights Advocate in the Cameroon explains: “Gay people live with risks on a daily basis. They are stigmatized at home, at school, at their workplaces. Sometimes they get rejected by school, by hospitals, People deny them access to care just because they are homosexual or effeminate.”
Ngwa is cautious and evasive 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. It is important to remember that in the Cameroons, much like neighboring Nigeria and Ghana, homosexuality is a taboo subject and that suspicion of homosexuality can easily land one in prison. In the film, we see Ngwa in communication via the internet with gay Cameroonians he knows and the film editor wisely hides their faces, knowing what exposure might means to their lives and safety.
BeBe’s career after winning the RuPaul Drag Race was full of ups and downs. He would sing and make a few recordings and later even did an acting workshop to improve his range as a performer. Ambitiously he created several wild Afrocentric stage shows, including Queendom, Creatures, and Nubia – which combined the theatricality of Grace Jones with obvious references to The Lion King. He grew tired of lip-syncing and preferred to perform using his own voice. Believing that a show should be a communal experience, he willingly shared the spotlight with his backup singers and dancers. These shows, although favorably reviewed, ate up most of the savings that Ngwa had and eventually he gave up on New York City and moved back to Minneapolis.
Despite an invitation in 2018 to appeal on RuPaul’s Drag Race All-Stars, Ngwa as BeBe has found it difficult to make a successful career of his drag persona. “I am too African. I am too worldly. I am not the pop princess. Maybe it’s just too global and people don’t get it.” Obviously, things have gotten even tougher for Ngwa since COVID-19 arrived in March of 2020. Being a resident of Minneapolis, he also realizes the significance of what happened to George Floyd and how that made him reflect on his own situation relative to Black Lives Matter.
What can we take away from this film? Probably the personal resilience and wild laugh of Marshall Ngwa who as an immigrant to the United States has worked to find his place in the highly competitive world of entertainment. It is his willingness to share himself as just an ordinary person and not a drag icon that endears us to his humanity and love, a man who can sit with us and talk about himself without the fanfare and make-up.
Being BeBe is the Documentary Centerpiece of this year’s Outfest. The film screens on August 21, 8:30 pm at the Clive Davis Theater of the Grammy Museum on Olympic Boulevard in downtown Los Angeles. There will be a special live performance by BeBe Zahara Benet that precedes the in-person screening. Virtual screening will be available afterwards from 8/22 through 8/24. For tickets to the in-person show or virtual screening, go to: https://outfestla2021.com/being-bebe/