BeBe Zahara Benet, the drag alter ego of Marshall Ngwa is put under the microscope in the intimate Being BeBe which charts fifteen years in the performer’s life. Filmmaker Emily Branham explores the performer’s roots in Cameroon, relationship with his family, and his success following winning the debut season of RuPaul’s Drag Race in 2009.
Branham’s fly-on-the-wall approach explores Marshall reflecting on his early years in Cameroon with his tight-knit family and individualistic style. Being BeBe chronicles the performer’s journey to the Minneapolis and his career in the The Gay 90s bar as a performance artist in the early noughties. Examining his grit and determination, the documentary explores Marshall’s rise to Western fame as the winner of the first season of RuPaul’s Drag Race before venturing into his ambitious desires as a musical artist and star of his own Cirque Du Soleil inspired show.
Branham explores numerous fascinating angles in Being BeBe and the most notable hook is Marshall’s roots in Cameroon. Opening with musings from family members about how Marshall and Bebe are not particularly well known in Cameroon, but have found US fame (with fans often inciting calls of “Camerooon” at his shows) sets the scene for Marshall’s complex relationship with his home nation. Sharing that the country has not evolved massively in its conservative views on homosexuality, yet he still has an undeniable pride in the nation. This is witnessed in Marshall incorporating elements of his African roots into his performances, music, and costumes – some of the factors that made him such a force to be reckoned with on RuPaul’s Drag Race.
In beginning her relationship with Marshall in 2006, Branham’s film feels refreshingly authentic. Whilst Marshall had success in the Minneapolis club and pageant scene – this would later be eclipsed by his Drag Race fame. It is clear that the Marshall we see from 2006 to 2021 is unchanged – continuously authentic and disarmingly honest, with a finesse and skill as a performance artist that only improves over the years. Seeing Marshall’s ambition grow further throughout the project and the homing of his craft through rehearsals, recording sessions and acting classes shows the performer’s grit and determination to succeed. Marshall delivers wit and likeability throughout – particularly as he recaps and reacts to earlier footage in the later day interviews.
Branham’s glimpse into Marshall’s post-Drag Race career is similarly fascinating. Capturing the whirlwind of conventions, concerts and appearances and Marshall’s preparation for her own Cirque Du Soleil inspired show – pouring all emotionally and financially into this before losing a crucial investor, captures the struggles of life in the world of performing arts. The emotional ups-and-downs continue in the exploration of the pandemic hitting Marshall’s workload, and projects; whilst continued success on RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars highlights the victories amidst these challenges.
Branham’s Being BeBe captures the charm, gumption and grit of Marshall Ngwa and gives an impressive sense of how these attributes are channelled into the persona of BeBe. An authentic style and natural approach sheds light on the skilled performer and talented creative at the heart of BeBe, whilst navigating the ups-and-downs of post-Drag Race life, life in the performing arts, and the pandemic. This is a fascinating piece that only made us fall even more in love with BeBe Zahara Benet.