Few filmmakers lately seem as capable of accomplishing as much in two hours as Nana Mensah does in 75 minutes in her directorial debut, “Queen of Glory.” Mensah wrote the film as well as stars as Sarah, a Ghanaian-American living in New York City whose life is turned upside down after the sudden death of her mother.
Mensah wastes no time showing how Sarah is caught between two different worlds and two separate identities. When she is around her Ghanaian family, American-born Sarah appears ill at ease with their customs. Working and studying science at Columbia University and hanging around her white, married-with-kids colleague and boyfriend Lyle (Adam Leon), Sarah appears a lot more comfortable and confident. She’s even planning on following Lyle to Ohio, where he has accepted a teaching position. But after her mom Grace passes away, Sarah finds herself back in the Bronx neighborhood where she grew up to settle her mom’s affairs, which include the future of King of Glory, a Christian bookstore she owned and operated.
Mensah’s film and her characters possess a very lived-in atmosphere, especially within their Bronx environment. Even this film’s relatively small cast feel representative of the melting pot of individuals who inhabit the neighborhood, from a boisterous family of Russian neighbors to Pitt (Meeko Gattuso), the King of Glory’s sole employee. It’s clear when she first meets this rough-looking, tattooed man, an ex-convict who her mom took a chance on, that Sarah is a bit startled by him, by like so many other people and things throughout the movie, she initially takes him at face value. Ultimately, Sarah and Pitt form a really lovely friendship the more time Sarah spends at the store, learning more from him about her mother and the community that meant so much to her. Mensah also stages her shots in a way that shows Sarah’s gradual transition from near-stranger to belonging. When she first visits the neighbors after walking teenage Kaitlyn home, the camera stays about as far away from Sarah as possible while she stands just inside the door in the background, the members of the household bustling across the screen in the foreground. She appears very isolated. But by the end of the movie, she is enjoying dinner with that same family, and the camera places her on equal footing with them.
Also present is Sarah’s father (Oberon K.A. Adjepong), who traveled from Ghana to the Bronx, and her Aunt Christie (Christie Mensah). To Sarah’s chagrin, they insist on a traditional funeral ceremony for Grace, one that involves gifts and food and dance. Images of Ghanaian funeral rites are glimpsed throughout the film, the possibility of having to interact so strongly with her heritage almost seeming like a nightmare for Sarah before she ultimately comes to accept and then embrace it. There are a lot of endearing and often funny scenes throughout the film that further emphasize the differences between Sarah and the rest of her family, especially her father. A running gag sees her father out on the street trying in vain to sell DVDs of questionable quality to passers by. In another scene, Sarah repeatedly tried to walk upstairs, only to be interrupted halfway up every time by her father shouting about the trouble he is having operating the TV.
“Queen of Glory” could perhaps have done with a slightly longer runtime to further flesh out the characters (even though I think what we get here is perfectly acceptable), and the plot follows some predictable beats. It’s obvious that things aren’t going to work out with Lyle. It’s obvious that things are going to come to a head once Sarah starts trying to secretly sell the bookstore behind Pitt’s back. But even though we may be able to easily be able to figure out where the story is going, that doesn’t make “Queen of Glory” any less effective as a tale about the immigrant experience, equal parts hilarious and moving. Mensah, in both her writing and her performance, through which she is able to convey the full breadth of emotions Sarah is experiencing, from grief and sadness to frustration to the satisfaction of discovering new things about her family and her heritage, compactly and effectively portrays the struggle of feeling like you are existing in two separate worlds. It may take Sarah some time to accept it, but by the end of the film, when we see her clad in a gorgeous traditional red dress, typically pulled-back hair now styled in an Afro for her mother’s funeral, surrounded by family and friends old and new, it’s clear that she is where she belongs.