There’s an interesting bit of editing in Emily Branham’s Being Bebe. It shows images the early days of its titular participant Bebe Zahara Benet as she enters Miss Gay USofA 2006. But preceding those images is a camera trying to capture 2019 Cameroon, its citizens skeptically looking back at that camera. Most Drag Race fans know that Bebe is from Cameroon and has many feelings about their home country. The country is on her mind always as this documentary captures the highs and lows of this first person to ever win Drag Race.
Reframing what I wrote in the previous paragraph, Being Bebe captures fifteen years in the life of a drag queen. And I write fifteen since the production continues for two more years. Those last two years show, albeit briefly, how COVID and the recent BLM protests have changed her career and life. A big chunk of the documentary look at Bebe’s early-ish days which is right after her Drag Race win. The show reintroduced drag to a public that was more accepting of the artform.
Bebe’s strong emotional bond with Cameroon is something she can’t shake, even if they try. That bond is a major theme in three of her one woman shows, her goal for each show is to make enough profit to take it to Vegas. That goal also makes for the documentary’s main conflict. They’re aware that they have a worldly persona and equally worldly shows. And that is what’s stopping her from seeming accessible to a market that prefers talent to assimilate to a melting pot.
Being Bebe works with a lot of heavy material. Bebe is an African immigrant who is definitely not straight and has precarious employment. But she’s aware of her privilege because of the success they have, regardless of whether or not they’re satisfied with that success. The documentary drives that point across with its Cameroon scenes, who are, as the documentary progresses, more than just images. Within its developing urban centres are people within the 2SLGBT+ who can’t show their faces in public like Bebe does.
Branham’s makes some inspired choices here. Like adding the Cameroon scenes or inserting herself into the documentary she’s directing or that taking a decade and a half to cook feels excessive. But as much as these choices are open to criticism, they’re also equally defensible. She could have kept going for Bebe’s whole lifetime. But fifteen years is enough to make a comprehensive documentary. One about a person and their families and countries which bleed onto their drag that some, like me, do want more of.
Being Bebe makes its OutTV.com premiere on June 21.