Award-Winning Docu ‘Being Bebe’ Chronicles The Extraordinary Life Of First ‘Drag Race Winner BeBe Zahara Benet

Photo credit: Adam Carboni for Work and Serve Productions | BeBe prepares for a show in her dressing room.

After a World Premiere at Tribeca Film Festival last year, and over 30 festivals on four continents, Emily Branham’s first feature documentary BEING BEBE roars into Pride Month by making its Broadcast Premiere on Fuse in the U.S. and OUTtv in Canada on June 21st, and will later be available on their streaming platforms.

‘Being BeBe’ intimately charts 15 years of drag performer Marshall Ngwa (aka BeBe Zahara Benet): An immigrant to America from homophobic Cameroon, first champion on now-iconic LGBTQ+ reality show phenomenon ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’.

From his COVID-standstill in Minneapolis, Marshall watches and reacts vibrantly to sequences that Branham filmed with him over the years. Like everyone in Minneapolis, he grieves the tragedy of George Floyd. Just months before, 2020 was poised to be BeBe’s “breakthrough year,” with a new TV show, music album and live show – until the pandemic hit. Throughout the film, we also meet LGBTQ+ youth and activists in Cameroon, where Queer rights remain in the dark ages. They’ve never heard of BeBe and are baffled by the concept of drag being a viable career. Yet they are mesmerized when seeing BeBe on smartphone screens.

In ‘Being BeBe, Marshall’s staggering effort is apparent years before his RuPaul’s Drag Race win in 2009 when there was no blueprint at the time for turning his new platform into an actual career. The opportunities and whirlwind in the 2020s bring a resurgence to BeBe’s languishing career. Grounded by Marshall’s present-day narration, the film features vérité, interviews and performances illustrating his journey to Queer Black Excellence.

We got to speak with Emily Branham about her award-winning directorial debut, and working closely with Marshall and his family to create this heartwarming story that is sure to inspire.

BEING BEBE // Festival Teaser from Emily Branham on Vimeo.

Congrats on the upcoming release of ‘Being Bebe’! Can you tell us how you started working on this film, and what made you want to make it?

I first met BeBe in 2006 when my sister was dancing backup for her at a local drag pageant in Minneapolis. As soon as Elizabeth told me about BeBe – a promising amateur drag performer originally from Cameroon, who had really pulled out all the stops to make a splash at this pageant – it caught my attention. Then when I saw BeBe perform live myself I was absolutely mesmerized. I sensed magic in what she was doing, and thought it could make for an amazing short documentary film to follow BeBe as she competed in her first national drag pageant in Dallas, Texas. Fortunately, BeBe was open to letting me in, and I borrowed a camera and enlisted a couple of very good friends to help me capture the events. 

I hadn’t worked much in documentary before, aside from some short student projects in film school. I moved to New York right after college and had been trying hard to break into music video directing. I was also working in commercial production and editing to make a living. I was trying to build a reel for myself as a director in a mostly male-dominated industry, while working in production on a parallel path to pay my bills. I worked on dozens of commercial and music video projects as a PA and production coordinator in New York City, and not one of them was directed by a woman.

I didn’t know much about drag before I started filming with BeBe (aka Marshall Kudi Ngwa), and was really drawn in by the heightened performances of femininity, and the courageous and unapologetic self-expression of so many of the entertainers. That first pageant was fascinating and BeBe placed well. But the more we got to know each other, the more I realized that there was a lot more “there” there with Marshall, and I wanted to continue to explore that. I related to him personally – especially his work ethic and attention to detail, his ambition to succeed in a creative field that his parents didn’t necessarily understand, and his closeness with his immediate family.

Over time we developed more trust and our friendship deepened, which just made me more committed to wanting our film to do his and his family’s story justice. Three years after we started filming together, BeBe was cast on the first season of ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ (2009) – and she won the crown. I thought that might be the ending to our film, but as we dug into the edit I was confronted with the realization that it was actually just the beginning.

As this is your first feature length documentary, what were the biggest challenges for you as a filmmaker along the way? And what were the best moments? 

I learned so much about documentary storytelling through hard-fought trial and error, and about the industry through the generous resource-sharing of the independent documentary community in New York City. I learned that 80% of directing/producing a film is the process of repeatedly, ad nauseum, finding different ways to get potential partners, funders, and team members to see the exciting potential in the story that I see, every step of the way – from the first shoot through to today, as we’re in our distribution and impact campaign phases.

The most painful moments probably occurred every time I made a big push with the edit, in hopes that we were close to finishing the film, only to realize it was further away than I’d hoped. I can think of three distinct moments of that, in 2009, 2015, and 2019. Being a super independent film, we would incrementally fundraise for each phase, and then have to pause again and apply for grants and/or pay off credit card debt. 

I think it’s important to be transparent that my ability to persevere with this project was mostly made possible through my freelance commercial production work, which I would throw myself into for months or years at a time, in order to buy my own time to keep the film moving forward wearing as many of the hats myself as I could. It also would not have been possible without the support of a very generous team/crew who believed in the importance of BeBe’s story as much as I do, the financial support of 650+ Kickstarter backers, and favors from pretty much everyone I have known in my adult life. We are very grateful to have won 4 grants (out of dozens and dozens applied for), and for the support of our first broadcast/distribution partner, OUTtv, who found out about the film through our Kickstarter campaign.  

BeBe always talks about “divine timing,” and I too feel that now really is the right moment for his story to connect with people.  

One of the biggest risks we took along the way – which also ended up being among the most rewarding experiences – was deciding to travel to Cameroon to film in 2018. Marshall lost a dear family member, and was going back to Cameroon for the first time since he’d moved to the US. It was shortly after our Kickstarter campaign, and I was deeply conflicted about using funds to shoot more rather than edit. It was a big cost for our independent project, and it was clear that Marshall’s family was not so keen to have a camera at their memorial events. I agonized over the decision with my producing team, and ultimately could not ignore the whispers and the pull that I felt to “just go.” 

We approached the shoot in a very lean way – just myself and director of photography Sinisa Kukic and his camera. When it became clear that it was a hard “no” from Marshall’s family to film with them at all, I pivoted and reached out to everyone in our network with connections in Cameroon. I asked them for introductions to anyone they knew in the LGBTQ+ community in Yaounde. I was Whatsapp-ing furiously as we were about to take off from JFK airport, and one dear colleague wrote back right away: “My cousin will pick you up from the airport.” 

Sure enough, they did, and despite a very real French/English language barrier, they were our ambassador to a community of beautiful souls in Cameroon whose heart wrenching stories could easily have been BeBe’s story, but for the luck of circumstance and being born into a different family. I’m deeply grateful for the generosity of the individuals we met, the dimension that their stories added to our film, and for the additional motivation that knowing them all has given me to push even harder to help BeBe’s story reach the audiences that need to see it.  

Photo credit: Jeremy Wilker for Work and Serve Productions | BeBe watches and reacts to clips of the film captured over the past 15 years.

There have been so many major events that have happened since you started making the film, most notably the global pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020 after the murder of George Floyd. What was it like to watch and document Marshall’s life throughout this time? 

If you even think about how much drag and the cultural perception of it has changed in the US since we started making this film in 2006 – in no small part because of the success of ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ – the film really is a time capsule and document of history in certain ways.  

There was a version of our film in late 2019 that we were starting to submit to film festivals, even though I had a lot of doubts and inklings that it wasn’t quite finished yet. Then when the pandemic hit, we took that as a sign and opportunity to hit pause, step away for a bit, and re-imagine whether there might be a fresh bit of “fairy dust” or new framework that might make it even stronger.  

The murder of George Floyd was devastating to all of us, of course. Minneapolis is BeBe’s home, where he and most of his siblings are currently based. I’ve been in New York now for almost 20 years, but I grew up in Minneapolis and almost half of our documentary’s material was filmed there. We felt we needed to address it in the film somehow.  

Meanwhile, the start of 2020 launched some of BeBe’s best and most personal work to date – including her new live show ‘Nubia’, new album ‘Broken English’, and new TV show ‘Dragnificent’. It seemed a shame to not incorporate these achievements as scenes rather than in written text before the credits rolled.

After a good deal of thought and planning, we enlisted local cinematographer Jeremy Wilker to help us pull off a pandemic-safe remote film shoot in Minneapolis with BeBe and our Co-Producer Diego Wyatt. I stayed in NYC and directed via Zoom, with the support of one of our Producers in San Francisco. We filmed a new extended interview with BeBe, centered around him watching back sequences of the film, taking in and reacting to material from the past 15 years. BeBe’s reflective point of view during the Covid-19 standstill was refreshing and emotional. This interview became the new “spine” of our film, and ended up serving beautifully as that extra bit of “fairy dust” we had all hoped we would find.

Right now we’re seeing a scary number of anti-trans bills, and anti-LGBTQIA+ rhetoric being thrown about in politics. How can a film like this be an antidote or a safe space for those looking to feel less alone in the middle of all this? 

It’s so awful. Nobody should be made to feel that living their truth or loving who they want to love is wrong or shameful in any way. One of our goals – and a major part of BeBe’s philosophy as an artist – is to be a source of love and light to those who are facing struggles, adversity and prejudice. One of the survival mechanisms I’ve seen him use and really marveled at, is that he simply does not give air to any negativity that comes his way. He pushes it far from mind, focusing instead on the positive feedback and love that surrounds him. He digs deep within himself daily to spark a fire that fuels his productivity, creativity, output, and beauty.

Some may blow off drag as “just” fantasy or superficial, but the empowerment that he gifts to others through his own authentic self-expression is significant. There are both highs and lows to BeBe’s story that we bear witness to in our film, but at the heart of it is a buoyant, joyful and inspiring artist who doesn’t give up – and neither should we.  

Photo credit: Austin Nunes for Work and Serve Productions | BeBe and the cast of Nubia raise their fists in empowerment in the finale of their show.

What was the most eye-opening, or educational thing you learned by documenting the story of this powerhouse Black African Queer performer who has touched so many lives? 

Learning about the state of LGBTQ+ human rights in Cameroon and 70 countries in the world that criminalize same-sex love and gender non-conformity. We still have a long way to go in the US, and it’s painful to see things backsliding here in our current political climate, but I do feel that a lot of of people in my generation and younger take it for granted that of course LGBTQ+ rights are human rights, and that there should be nothing taboo or shameful about identifying as LGBTQ+.    

I was also appalled to learn more about the complex and recent colonial history of Cameroon – at the hands of Germany, France, and the UK – the after-effects of which have created violent rifts that are dividing and destabilizing the Cameroonian people today. There’s so much about African history and current affairs that we in the US are completely ignorant about.

The more I learned about this context, what doubly surprised and heartened me was discovering that BeBe’s story was NOT the sadly-too-familiar one of family rejection, or other similarly situated tragedy. It is one of family unity and loving support that I believe could serve as a model to families everywhere.

How closely did you work with Marshall throughout the years in making this film and to ensure his story was authentically told? 

We frequently discussed the vision that I had for telling Marshall’s story within the framework of a 90-minute film, and he’d clarify boundaries that were important to him to maintain. He of course has always had a say in what we filmed and did not film. BeBe wasn’t always thrilled to have a camera capturing intimate and vulnerable times, but at the same time, he agreed that if we were going to tell this story, we needed to tell the whole truth, and I am so grateful for his trust in the process. I had multiple conversations with his family as well, who were understandably protective of their brother and son.

Before we locked picture, when we were getting pretty happy with the edit, we shared the cut with BeBe and his siblings for their feedback. Their notes were excellent, and we incorporated as many of them as we could. The reception of the film by members of Marshall’s family & extended Cameroonian community in the Twin Cities was something I cared deeply about – and their blessing, approval, and even celebration of the film at our Minneapolis Premiere last year was profoundly moving to me. 

Photo credit: Emily Branham for Work and Serve Productions | BeBe prepares for a show in her dressing room in Minneapolis (2014)

Coming from Cameroon where queer rights still have a long way to go, what did it mean to witness the influence Marshall is having on his home turf and how he is paving the way for others?

I keep a photo on my desk of one of the young Cameroonians whose story and sensitive soul touched me most – and it has been there every day, catching my eye as the marathon of connecting this story with the ones who need to see it most continues. The literal goosebumps they got watching BeBe perform, knowing that he came from Cameroon and was making them proud in the US and all over the world – it’s the “WHY” that keeps me going, and the North Star for our impact campaign. We want this film to be one small but meaningful contribution of representation in the many-pronged global LGBTQI+ human rights movement toward making the world a safer place for all the “Baby BeBes” in Cameroon and everywhere.

‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ has turned so many Queens into icons over the seasons, and that is certainly true of Bebe! What do you hope audiences will take away after watching your film and learning about Bebe/Marshall’s personal story over the years? 

I have so much love for ‘Drag Race’ and the many Queens on it. One thing I find that audiences are taking away however is that our movie is really not “a Drag Race movie,” it’s much more about the long game of a creative career, and an unexpectedly nuanced dive into the grit and persistence that it takes to navigate one, especially as an immigrant to the US from Cameroon.

It may sound cliche, or like a “pageant answer” as BeBe would say, but I really hope that people who watch BEING BEBE will feel uplifted, empowered and inspired to grab hold of their own wildest dreams – and dare to express themselves as authentically as they possibly can. 

‘Being BeBe’ makes its Broadcast Premiere on Fuse in the U.S. and OUTtv in Canada on June 21st. You can also watch the award-winning documentary on Prime Video and Apple TV+ by clicking HERE.

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