Seen as part of the Mardi Gras Film Festival
The year was 2009 and on a barely watched network called Logo a TV series called RuPaul’s Drag Race aired. The first season was cheap, filmed just around the regular offices with a makeshift stage and a prize of $20,000 but it still captured serious attention, in particular, everyone couldn’t help but be fascinated by one particular queen. She was regal, she was powerful, she commanded the stage with a presence that oozed from the screen every time she was on it. That queen’s name was Bebe Zahara Benet and she was the first winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race and in her documentary Being Bebe, you get to learn just what made her into the absolute icon she truly is.
Being Bebe takes us on a journey of Bebe’s career from just before her first run on Drag Race up to the present day and explores the hard work that Bebe put in to making her career soar, getting to share that with her family, the hardships that came when the bookings stopped coming in due to her season being known as “The Lost Season” and even her eventual reintroduction to the masses as part of All Stars 3. It’s a fascinating story of a performer who reached the top of her field, watched as the field grews bigger and people slipped past her, then clawing her way back to her rightful spot up the top.
Being Bebe has a very interesting structure because it takes place over several decades. The film started being made long before Bebe’s first appearance on Drag Race and if the film had been able to be finished in time, that would’ve been where it all ended but in a strange way a lack of ability to finish it with that ending allowed the film to grow in scope to create something special, this look at an artist that keeps going after they reach the top. It also allows a rare opportunity to show Bebe’s old interviews for this very documentary and watch the changes in stark contrast.
Watching the glory of Bebe Zahara Benet performing is also just a delight, watching as they plan for these epic shows and witnessing the raw talent that made them an undeniable force when they were on television makes for compelling viewing. Witnessing them trying to navigate the industry as a performer is one thing but then you have moments where people suggest they try to learn an American accent, something Bebe fights in a powerful moment where they refuse to erase their heritage as a performer from Cameroon… and that also lets the film pull off one of its most powerful tricks.
See, Being Bebe would be a great documentary if it was just about Bebe herself but the thing that pushes Being Bebe from being a great documentary into being a brilliant documentary is how they use Bebe’s story as a springboard to look at bigger issues. They talk about how Cameroon treats LGBT people (via interviews with LGBT people living in Cameroon, who are all given anonymity for their own protection) and about how tough this industry can be in general, even touching on the recent George Floyd murder case. It does a wonderful job of taking Bebe’s story and showing a wider picture at all times, before zooming right back in on the star of the show.
Every time Being Bebe takes a break from being serious and just lets us watch Bebe perform, it feels like a reward. Watching this performer hitting the stage and captivating an entire crowd is worth the price of admission alone, we only get little peeks of it every now and then but when it happens it’s impossible not to be completely transfixed by the glory that is Bebe Zahara Benet on a stage.
Being Bebe is that special kind of artist documentary that doesn’t always show them on top, it doesn’t sugarcoat the reality of what they have had to go through but, in not holding back, the film lets Bebe’s resilience shine. This is a performer who you cannot knock down and every second of the film shows that, it’s a powerful tribute to an important figure of modern queer culture and it’s lovely to see them getting to be the superstar that they were meant to be.