Emily Branham knew she wanted to tell BeBe Zahara Benet’s story the moment she heard about the Minneapolis drag performer.
Branham was living in New York City, editing and producing commercials and music videos, when his sister back in her hometown of Minneapolis landed a gig as a backup dancer for Benet, who was about to travel to Texas. to participate in its first national drag competition. Benet was not only a formidable performer with an infectious personality, but she was also from the African country of Cameroon with a rich history.
âI came to Minneapolis to see her play and she blew me away,â Branham said. “She was more than I expected.”
But what was initially to be a short film centered on that trip to Texas turned out to be a 15-year trip with hundreds of hours of footage, a trip to Cameroon, a blossoming friendship, and the feature-length documentary “Being BeBe , âWhich serves as the closing night selection of the annual Sound Unseen Film Festival. The doc will debut on November 13 at the Walker Art Center and Branham and Benet will be on hand for a Q&A after the screening.
âAfter the contest I knew there was so much going on there, we just kept filming,â Branham said. âI wanted the film to be a Trojan horse. As you start to watch it, it’s light and fun. But it’s more than that. BeBe’s story has so much to offer.
From Cameroon to Minnesota
Long before there was BeBe Zahara Benet, there was Nea Marshall Kudi Ngwa from Douala, Cameroon. He first tried flirting at a fashion show in Paris and offered to put on a dress when one of the female models hadn’t shown it.
At 19, Ngwa moved to Minneapolis, where her other siblings had attended college. In 2001, he began his drag career as a performer at the Gay 90s nightclub in downtown Minneapolis. It was years before âRuPaul’s Drag Raceâ brought art into the mainstream, and at the time, one of the main ways to build a national audience was through the pageant circuit.
âEmily came to a rehearsal and was very intrigued by the whole idea of ââdrag and the pageantry that goes with it,â Ngwa said. “She asked me if she could follow me and make it a little something.”
The pair, who are both now 41, hit it off.
“It started with building a friendship first and having a lot – and a lot – of conversations,” Ngwa said. âAnd the conversations had nothing to do with work, but everything to do with family and being humans going through the human experience. It took a while, but I was able to build a lot of trust with her.
Enter the ground floor of ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’
In 2008, Ngwa learned that drag superstar RuPaul was set to launch a competitive reality TV series. A friend encouraged him to apply, and then the show’s producers contacted him, inviting him to audition. It wasn’t until RuPaul herself showed up at the Gay 90s and visited Ngwa behind the scenes.
âThe reason it took me a long time is because before ‘Drag Race’ a lot of people made fun of this art form instead of laughing at it. I didn’t want to be that thing people laugh at, âNgwa said.
But after RuPaul’s personal pleas, Ngwa auditioned and secured a spot in the inaugural season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race”. While the show is now its own industry, with 13 seasons, numerous spinoffs, and international releases in 10 countries, in early 2009 it was a largely unknown show with its nine low-budget episodes airing on the relatively obscure cable network. Logo.
âIt was crazy,â Ngwa said of the shoot. âThey just said, ‘Hey, pack four suitcases with everything you’ve got.’ It was like the production was trying to figure out what the show was like while we were doing it. (The competitors) were also trying to figure it out. Every day was a new surprise.
âPeople tell me all the time how hard it is to participate in a ‘Drag Race’ and I say ‘No it’s not. At least now you have a plan. You know how to prepare. We do not have.”
“Drag Race” provided a platform, not a career
In the first season finale of “Drag Race”, Bebe Zahara Benet triumphed over Nina Flowers in a lip-sync of “Cover Girl (Put the Bass in Your Walk) by RuPaul”, winning a cash prize of $ 20,000 and $ 5,000 from MAC Cosmetics. .
At the time, Branham believed this would be the perfect ending to his documentary.
âAfter BeBe won ‘Drag Race’ she was going to have an integrated audience,â said Branham. “I might have thought ‘Drag Race’ was the end, but I didn’t know it was more like the start.”
Looking at the footage, Branham realized there wasn’t enough of it yet, and she wanted to give BeBe’s story more depth and breadth. It was a feeling she had had repeatedly over the next decade.
âBeing BeBeâ follows Ngwa’s post-âDrag Raceâ life, which included moving to New York City, trying to establish himself on a larger scale, attempting to stage a pair of original drag shows and ultimately returning to Minneapolis with an uncertain future.
âIt was a time in BeBe’s career where she threw a lot of spaghetti at the wall,â Branham said. “She wanted to be back on TV and maximize her fame and success.”
âI tell people that ‘Drag Race’ gave me a platform, not a career,â Ngwa said. âI had to build a career on my own through trial and error. It’s part of being an artist.
A trip that changes a life in Africa
In 2018, things were looking up again for Ngwa. He made a surprise appearance in the third season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars” as the first “Drag Race” champion to compete on “All Stars”. Branham took advantage of Ngwa’s new visibility and launched a Kickstarter to help fuel âBeing BeBeâ. She quickly reached her goal by raising $ 35,027 from 658 backers.
Branham used some of the money to finance a trip to Cameroon. The footage that followed led to some of the documentary’s most moving and intense moments.
âIt was really tough, it was just me and a cinematographer,â she said. âWe were a small, agile team. But what we got out of it was significant. “
Cameroonian footage shows serious homophobia in a country where you can be arrested for simply presenting yourself in public as something other than a strictly masculine man or woman. Branham interviewed young gay Cameroonians – and blurred their faces to protect their identities – who marveled at Ngwa’s success. He doesn’t just survive, they said, but he lives. Branham called the trip a life changing.
“Not just another diva”
With the return of BeBe Zahara Benet in the spotlight, 2019 offered more good news. Ngwa landed a role in the TLC series “Dragnificent”, which features four drag artists who assist women in their impending marriages.
Ngwa also developed a new live-action drag show dubbed Nubia, which featured him alongside five other Black “Drag Race” veterans – Bob the Drag Queen, Peppermint, Shea Coulee, the Vixen and Monique Heart – performing original music, group choreography, video installations, live vocals, lip syncing and narrative-driven performance art. The first three performances in New York City sold out and garnered praise from critics and fans alike. (Branham said Nubia is the best thing she’s ever seen since BeBe.)
Unfortunately, these three shows took place in early March 2020, just before the pandemic containment. Ngwa’s plan to take Nubia to Los Angeles and other major cities has been canceled.
That summer, Branham had yet another rough cut of the documentary ready, but it still didn’t seem quite right. She took inspiration from one of her favorite films – “Gimme Shelter,” which shows members of the Rolling Stones watching footage from their disastrous concert in Altamont in 1969 – and arranged a remote interview with Ngwa in August.
The new footage shows Ngwa out of the drag, relaxing on a sofa while watching and commenting on Branham’s first cut. The couple also reflect on the murder of George Floyd, with a masked Ngwa visiting George Floyd Square.
âOne of BeBe’s superpowers is how warm she is one-on-one with people. It’s so wonderful, it’s one of the things that allowed me to work with her, âsaid Branham.
The new streak, Branham said, was an attempt to get more heat onscreen. âAs I injected more of our relationship into the story, I felt that warmth is felt more. I want people to see what I see in BeBe. She’s not just another performing diva.
After 15 years, ‘Being BeBe’ is ready for her close-up
Ngwa’s extended family – some of whom were still in the process of coming to terms with his drag career – appear on “Being Bebe” and one of the most emotional moments is watching his parents watch him perform live as BeBe for the first time.
The documentary made its way into the festival circuit this year, winning accolades as well as the 2021 Best Documentary award at the Provincetown International Film Festival. Ngwa intends to relaunch Nubia as a touring production next year.
âI just want the film to reach the right people,â said Branham, who hopes it will be a useful tool for those on the front lines of the fight for LGBTQ equality.
Is Ngwa satisfied with the final version of the film?
âI am humbled,â he said. âHappy is good, but humiliated is even better. I feel like he captured my trip. He captured who I am, which I always meant. It’s about persistence, being patient, focused and happy. It’s all of these different aspects of who I am.
âI’m very excited for the screening at Walker and we have some ‘Drag Race’ girls coming to town to see it. It’s my 20th birthday in dating. And this movie is almost a love letter to Minneapolis and Minnesota. This past year has been very difficult. But we still have that magic, we still have that thing that made Minnesota such a beautiful place. Yes, we took 10 steps back, but I think we can take 10 or 20 steps forward.
- When: 7 p.m. November 13
- Or: Walker Art Center, 725 Vineland Place, Mpls.
- Tickets: $ 20 via soundunseen.com