Nana Mensah’s Queen Of Glory Is A Love Letter To Ghana & NYC

Photo: Momodu Mansaray/Getty Images.
Queen of Glory is actress-turned writer/director Nana Mensah’s first film and it’s a love letter to the first-generation immigrant experience and New York, but at its heart, it’s a coming of age story. The film, which debuted in the U.S. this weekend (a UK release is set for August), follows Sarah [Mensah], a Ghanaian-American professor, and explores her ties to her family’s culture and African identity after a tragic event. Sarah’s mother passes away and Sarah inherits her mother’s Bronx home and Christian bookstore, along with its sole employee, Pitt [Meeko Gattuso], a reformed ex-con. The stellar ensemble cast reflects the amalgamation of different cultures that New York City holds dear. 
Mensah grew up in the Bronx around her mother’s business, the Christian book store from the film, and her employees from around the world —  including Bangladesh, Nigeria, and Ecuador. Mensah was constantly privy to cultures crossing and intertwining, which is why it comes as no surprise that watching Queen of Glory feels very much like riding the train and seeing every nation represented at any stop. The film acknowledges the non-monolithic stories of the Black diaspora, one where the voices of children of immigrants can be heard. It mirrors the streets of the Bronx, but the film also is so clearly the brainchild of a Ghanaian. The country’s imprint is so apparent and beautifully done. Queen of Glory is the movie to watch this summer. Here, Mensah speaks to Unbothered over Zoom about the film, casting her Ghanaian Aunties, capturing the essence of the Bronx, and how she honed in on the neighbourhood’s core: family.
Photo: courtesy of Magnolia Pictures/Film Movement.
What was the inspiration for Queen of Glory?
Nana Mensah
Nana Mensah: I wanted to write a story that I hadn't seen. I got really good advice from a mentor, who was basically like, write something around which you can get for cheap or free. Steven Spielberg could pluck my script out of a pile and go make it for $100 million. That's possible. But, when there is that much money at stake and that many stakeholders, it becomes less and less yours. If you're going to make your first film, let it be yours. Therefore not taking money from people who didn't understand what I was trying to do was important. I don't think I'll be that principled again [laughs]. But for the first time, it was good. 
To be fair, a lot of people turned me down when I said, “I'm trying to make a dark comedy about a Christian bookstore in the Bronx.” Dudes who work at hedge funds don't understand that, they're like, “Who's gonna watch it? Like, when am I gonna get my ROI?”  I think that was kind of important for me to just make sure that I told the story that I wanted to tell. Is there a Machiavellian version of it in which I saw Lena Dunham and Issa Rae, who were bootstrapping their first projects, similarly and then used that as a calling card or a launching off pad to something else? Definitely. I had been dropped by my agent. I didn't have any representation, and the auditions that I was getting were not great. I'm the only New York actor to have never been on Law and Order. I've never even auditioned for Law and Order, which is crazy and hurts my feelings, frankly. It's a rite of passage, but I just couldn't get arrested. I thought let me do something on my own, start my own thing. And that’s what I did.
Photo: courtesy of Magnolia Pictures/Film Movement.
I suppose that relates to why you juggled all three hats of writer, actor and director, because you had to create that space for yourself.
NM: I set out to write it. I thought, If somebody amazing wants to act in it, I would happily step aside. I did not set out to direct it. It was only when I was meeting with a couple of other directors and the way they were talking about the film wasn't the way that I saw the film. I didn’t want to do African poverty misery stuff. That doesn't interest me. And that's frankly, not my family's story. Of course, my family endured hardship when they first came [to America], but everybody does when they move to a different country for the first time and especially as Black people. 
But there was also a lot of joy. There's so many funny stories that my parents have of those early days when they were broke and figuring it out. They were young and in love and I just didn't need to have really bad poverty politics in my film. I felt a lot of the directors that I spoke to initially thought, “Oh, this is like her mother dies, this is sad, this is depressing.” I was like, “No, no, no, we've got to find we've got to find joy. We've got to find joy because frankly, I think I'll speak for Ghanaians. We are good at finding joy in even dark places.” I think there's something of overlap in the Venn diagram of Africans and Jewish people, there's definitely an overlap of being able to find the humour in something that's like really dark. 
As a Nigerian-American, there were so many scenes I could connect to, like when Sarah’s uncle is selling Ghanaian movies, or Sarah’s father’s obsession with soccer — my dad is just like that. Those moments made me wonder what kind of elements you chose to incorporate into the film to create cultural specificity?
NM: You know, I didn't have a lot of resources at my disposal, right? Like, this is a low budget film that was made with some spit and some strings and bandaids.There were some things that I would have loved to have done, but we just didn't have the resources to do. I was like if I'm gonna get one thing right, I just have to get the authenticity. I think that I can write out the story in that way. All of those things are taken from snapshots of my own [upbringing] like the sport-obsessed father. 
One of the things that a friend of mine said that really was super triggering for her was the scene [where] you don't even see him. She's trying to go up the stairs and he keeps asking how to work the TV. So, I guess I'm onto something because everybody seems to be feeling they have the same trigger points; you know, fathers. 

I made a best faith effort to cast Ghanaians when I could... I cast a lot of family members... Thank God I have a good relationship with all my Aunties.

In terms of achieving that authenticity, I think a lot of it had to do with casting. I made a best faith effort to cast Ghanaians when I could, and when I couldn't I tried to make that a less prominent part of their identity in the film. I cast a lot of family members, I cast a lot of family to make this happen. I would say casting is the number one thing, just getting a sense of that authenticity. Thank God I have a good relationship with all my Aunties because I’m like, “Okay, fine. I mean, they're gonna be late, but they'll come.”
I think Pitt [Gattuso] emerges as a fan favorite before the film is midway through. What did you have in mind when crafting this character? How did the process of casting Pitt work for you?
NM: If it seems like the part fits [Meeko] like a glove, it's because I actually wrote it for him. I saw him in an independent film, another indie film called Gimme The Loot, and that film and my film share a producer. As I got to know him, I was like, Meeko is so great. I want to work with Meeko all the time, because here's this man, this Gen X-er with tattoos all over his face and body and has clearly lived a hard life. He's been incarcerated for some time, but there's also a light there — despite all of the things that he must have done and heard and seen in his lifetime thus far. And I really liked that. He got somewhat famous playing Mouse on Euphoria. He's playing a drug dealer in that, and that's obvious, you know what I mean? For me, it felt really interesting and impossible to see what else he could do. And it's like, what if he's a devoted husband and father and works in a Christian bookstore, but has that face? And has those tattoos? Like, what will happen? And it turns out, great stuff [happens], good comedy.
Photo: courtesy of Magnolia Pictures/Film Movement.
That was a great choice on your end. The contrast between his initial appearance and his personality is what makes their chemistry so great in the film. 
NM: I think so too and that we have that chemistry. I've said this in interviews before, but one of my favourite things about Meeko is, again, he looks the way he does, but he knows every word to the Grease soundtrack, and that's amazing. Even though I am not a cis man, and I've never been involved with gangs or served time, weirdly, there's something similar. Because when I walk into a room, people make their own preconceived notions of what I'm all about. Then I open my mouth, and people are like, “Oh, interesting, not what I expected.” That is what I've been doing my whole life, and that's what he's been doing for most of his adult life. In that way, there's kind of a bond.

I didn’t want to do African poverty misery stuff. That doesn't interest me. And that's frankly, not my family's story.

Nana meNSAH
The African immigrant experience is often synonymous with suffering, and yet your movie examines it with a comedic and lighter tone. This film evokes a range of emotions that proves this is a coming of age story not just one of mourning. How did you work to subvert that narrative?
NM: It was a challenge to walk that line, because you don't want to be irreverent. Especially because this is not an autobiography; I don't have a PhD, my parents are still very much alive, and I have a great relationship with my father. There's an emotional truth, but it's not autobiographical. I did talk to my friends who have lost parents, and it was important to me, they all spoke of that weird duality of having this seismic pain, but that it has to take a backseat to all the like minutiae, and all the little things that you have to do to arrange you a proper send off for this parent. 
It's crazy that we ask people to do this, especially immigrant daughters, that a big chunk of executing this event falls on them. Imagine planning a wedding when you're the saddest you have ever been, and that's what it is essentially, the large-scale funerals that we execute.
It seemed like everything hit Sarah at her mother's traditional Ghanaian funeral. She was shouldering the burden of planning it by herself despite her father being there. During that period of their mutual mourning, he was watching soccer. I found myself asking, “Shouldn't he also be helping her, lending a hand?”
NM: That goes back to the same with the TV remote scene. You are an able-bodied individual, you can get up and get the remote, you can figure this out. I think that there's a weird thing about merging these two cultures. The culture where just by virtue of age, you are senior to me, and therefore can tell me what to do. I have no agency, and it doesn't matter how old I get, or how many degrees I have on my wall, you are still going to lay down the law and demand respect. 
To be perfectly honest, I think there's tons of toxic masculinity in West African culture. I wanted to tip my hat to that as well, just men behaving badly, but also not feeling or channeling their grief in the proper way. He's not able to cry about it or to engage with his daughter meaningfully. He just has to sit in front of the football match and just shut it down. Because to express it would be feminine and God forbid you'd be that.
A scene that I find very poignant is the one where Sarah apologises to Pitt for not being her mother, and how she worries she won’t live up to her expectations. Being a child of an immigrant, do you also worry that your family in the future will not be as connected to your African culture? Are you worried that you won't be as “Ghanaian,” as your parents for your second-gen children to sustain your culture like Sarah? 
NM: I do worry, and I have an ongoing love affair with Ghana. I have a dream of living there, I’ve been there for long stints, but I've never lived there. But that's, that's aspirational for me. That is what you're talking about, trying to overcompensate for something that I didn't have. But I think that I get America. I know what it's about. I know what it's selling, and I want to experience other things, but I don't know if that's just wanderlust. I would love for my kid to speak Twi and to have that connection with his grandparents and whatnot. But it does get harder, and it's sad to see that loss. I look at all my cousins and some of us married Ghanaian, some of us didn't. Some of us are still single, but I don't think there's a single next generation after us who speaks my parents language. I think in one generation, that's it. It's wiped out, you know? That's really powerful and it makes me scared. But we just have to figure out our way around it. I don't know what the answer is.
Photo: courtesy of Magnolia Pictures/Film Movement.
A large amount of the film takes place in the actual Christian bookstore that your parents actually own in real life. What was it like trying to convince them to let you film there?
NM: It was actually super easy. Because I knew what I needed to pitch and my producers were really smart about it. They were just like, “Look, the place is closed every Sunday because your family's at church. Let's just say we will shoot only on Sundays.” I was like, “Okay,” and so I said that [to my parents] and they said, “Okay, fine.” It was super easy. It's like we're not going to get in the way of your business. We're not going to be bothering your customers, it’ll be closed anyway, so just give me the key. I hate to say it was not hard. [Laughs]. It was not a big conversation, they were like, “Okay, if I don't have to do anything, fine.”
Queen of Glory will be available to watch in select UK cinemas from August 26th

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