By Gardenia Zuniga
“Cameroon!”, We all heard that before when we see BeBe Zahara Benet either on stage, down the street, or in this case, on the big screen at the historic Roxie theater.
Being Bebe is not the familiar immigrant story where cinderella gets saved by sparkles and a kiss at midnight, but Bebe Zahara Benet (aka Marshall Ngwa) takes us through the journey of what it is like to be Queer, immigrant, and relentless with your dreams. Director and close friend Emily Branham documented the last 15 years of Bebe's life in a love story of what it is like to be Queer, resilient, and share your magic with the world, even in the most conservative places like her home country, Cameroon.
We all saw the glitz and glam of Bebe 15 years ago as she was the first winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race in 2009. Bebe brought the world's attention to her talent, culture, and roots as she embraced in her outfits, performances, including shows in NYC, and her daily life how proud she is to be from Cameroon.
When I walked into the “Meet and Greet” mixer before the film, I was greeted by Bebe as we both walked in at the same time. She hugged me as I said to her, “Thank you for sharing your story with the world and making a difference in the Queer community.” I could tell she was touched by my words since her fabulous eyeliner was getting a bit watery, and her eyes sparkled while we shared a moment.
I was blown away to learn of Bebe's journey as an immigrant, her family's history, career journey, and how she is a triumph. Bebe shared her tears (I teared up a few times), her vibrant smile, and her passion throughout the film, moving the audience as many viewers showed emotion throughout some scenes.
The documentary touched on so many elements of what it is like to be African- American, Queer, and the sacrifices of being in the entertainment industry. Bebe was raw in some aspects by showing the struggle of having dreams, reinventing yourself but never changing who you indeed are.
In her case, she refused to lose her beautiful African accent or change her appearance to fit in the 'American way' of the industry. Instead, she opened the doors for many immigrant artists to share their values and maintain their true identities regardless of what the entertainment industry demands.
The film was impacted by the pandemic as there were a few virtual interviews, but also Bebe was in Minneapolis when George Floyd's #blacklivesmatter movement was born.
Producer and owner of San Francisco-based film company 13th Gen Marc Smolowitz shared with the audience how proud he was to bring Bebe's story to San Francisco and share such a beautiful film with a community supporting Bebe since 2009.
The film ended with a full house standing ovation followed by a Q&A with producers Emily Branham, Marc Smolowitz, Co-Producer Diego Wyatt, and Bebe Zahara Benet. I could tell that Bebe was thrilled to learn that many attendees were also from Cameroon.
Many questions through the Q&A came from viewers inspired by Bebe's story, such as Tea Elani, who asked Bebe, “How does she maintain her culture representation in her performances, and she (Tea) is also finding that balance as an artist?”.
“Being Bebe” isn’t just a film about Drag. To me, it was about culture. To see a pop culture icon be so devoted to their culture and where they come from is the definition of the representation this world needs. Whether you are black, white, gay, straight, male, female, all in between, or just a human, Being Bebe is the film you need to see. Bebe Zahara is the cultural icon we need.”- Tea Elani, Pop- Artist.
“This documentary is a beautiful love letter of a child who is sharing their passions with their parents regardless of their beliefs and embracing their culture, morals, and the essence of time,” Gardenia Zuniga, film critic. “This is a MUST WATCH film.”
For more information on Being Bebe Movie, visit the website.