In the perspicacious documentary “Being BeBe,” the director Emily Branham seems to have taken a page from Janet Malcolm. Within her profile of Marshall Ngwa, who performs drag as BeBe Zahara Benet, Branham tucks lucid insights about the codes, ethics and art of cinematic biography.
Branham, who gathered footage of Ngwa over 15 years and became his dear friend, frames the movie as a reminiscence. It opens in 2020 in Ngwa’s Minneapolis home, where he watches clips that Branham captured years earlier and reacts to the scenes in real time. These segments intermix with an overview of Ngwa’s life and his campaign for drag superstardom. Special attention is paid to his affection for his family, and the grace with which he navigated their shifting feelings about his embodying BeBe.
In a sea of glossy celebrity bio-docs, “Being BeBe” is a breath of fresh air. It observes its subject with a clear eye, and does not shy away from positioning Ngwa’s triumphs, such as his exciting win on the first season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” within a context of artistic, financial and social struggle.
Perhaps most powerful of all is Branham’s intermittent presence in the film. Sometimes she queries Ngwa from behind her grainy video camera, or he addresses her. In other moments, she interrupts her representation of Ngwa to stage a broader survey of homophobia in Cameroon. With her feature debut, Branham exposes her hand as filmmaker, and reminds us that “Being BeBe” is only a snapshot of Ngwa’s persona; the real thing is so much richer.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 33 minutes. Rent or buy on Apple TV, Google Play and other streaming platforms and pay TV operators.