Nana Mensah didn’t intend to direct her debut feature film Queen of Glory, but we’re glad she did. In our recent Awards Radar interview with the actor-writer-director, she discussed her unexpected road to using all three skills for this moving dramedy about a Ghanaian-American woman reconnecting with her roots upon her mother’s sudden death. As the film makes its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, we spoke with her to learn about her personal connection to the story and how she handled the depiction of cultural stereotypes.
Shane Slater: There’s a specificity to this film that feels so personal. What is the background behind you wanting to direct, write and star in this particular film?
Nana Mensah: The background is that I didn’t. I did not want to direct and I was on the fence about starring in it. I really wanted to write something and I really wanted to have a calling card of sorts, so that it would help open doors for me to do more writing projects. To be honest, it started with me writing a very big, lavish, expensive, period piece that’s set in 1940s Ghana. And I showed it to a friend who’s an indie filmmaker and I was like, so how do you think I get this made? And she was like, “Oh, girl. You don’t. Nobody’s gonna pay you $100 million to go do this.”
I mean, who are you? What do you know? You need to go away and go make that indie film that everybody wants. That indie film, that calling card, and just kind of get your name out there. And then you get the 100 million dollar costume drama period piece.
It was very humbling. So then I went away, and I was like, well, let me go write a small story. I went and looked up how to do it. A lot of books and articles. Things I gleaned from other people’s experiences like Barry Jenkins and Issa Rae, is that you shoot around what you can get for cheap or free. So basically, that helped me set my location. My family does own a Christian bookstore, or did own a Christian bookstore in the Bronx. And so I decided to kind of weave the story around the bookstore, to keep costs down.
The long story of it is that I’m not a megalomaniac. And I did not seek to write, direct and star in a feature film. I really just wanted to do one of those three, but budgetary concerns and whatnot kind of led me into the other two.
SS: There’s so much discussion these days about authenticity and accurate representation, and the responsibility that comes with that. I think this film does a great job of leaning into some of the cultural quirks from a place of love. I was wondering, did you ever second-guess your writing in terms of protecting the image of the culture?
NM: I think that’s kind of one of the reasons I made a conscious decision to not delve too deep in the religious aspect of it. Because I do feel pretty critical of the way that Christianity – especially a specific brand of Christianity – has kind of infiltrated the West African communities that I’m familiar with. And so that was pretty tough for me. So I decided not to really deal with it head on. I mean, there is a moment in the beginning of the film, but that’s obviously played more for comedy, and less criticism. The aunt is going on and on and in English prayer, and then a prayer in Akan. It’s meant to be a bit of a send up of that auntie, because we all have that auntie who is steeped in the blood of Jesus.
So it was more of a cultural thing. It wasn’t even about really religion head on. But you know, when you say that you’ve written a dark comedy that takes place around a Christian bookstore in the Bronx, people who know me were expecting that I was really going to be sending up Christianity, which I made a conscious choice not to do. So that was maybe one of the ways that I pulled back in terms of protecting the culture. Because I know that faith is really important to a lot of members of my family and I didn’t want to trample on that. Especially when they were letting me use their Christian bookstore for free. [Laughs].
SS: I love all the scenes in the neighbor’s house. There’s this really endearing screwball comedy energy to that family. What was the inspiration behind giving this white, Russian-American family such a prominent place in this story?
NM: Well, I met the mother who plays Tanya, she’s an actress named Anya Migdal, and she actually also helped produce the film. I met her in an acting class and we got to talking and it was so interesting, because she’s a white woman but she was born in the former USSR. And so we talked about her immigration to the US when she was like eight or nine.
What was very interesting for me personally was, I was feeling really disheartened at the roles that I was being offered as a black woman. A black woman who’s dark skinned and not a size zero. Things like that really felt frustrating to me, because it was kind of always Crackhead #4 or Dead Prostitute #73. That wasn’t exciting to me, that wasn’t why I wanted to do this. This isn’t the kind of stories, the storyteller I wanted to be.
And then on her end, weirdly, because she is Russian and speaks Russian fluently, it was almost always Refugee #12 and Dead Prostitute #74. So we kind of bonded over our frustrations of being intelligent women who were not being asked to ever explore that side of ourselves in our acting roles. And so I wrote that part with her in mind. I don’t want to speak for her but, the types of roles that a Russian woman gets asked to play are like, Bond villain, or you’re either a very vampy and sexy kind of Eastern European woman. Or a tragic sex trafficking victim and things like that. So she wanted to see something different.
So I wrote that part of just a mom who was really smart, but didn’t pursue academics in the same way. She got pregnant and had a kid very young, and then she got married, and she just is doing the mom thing, you know? That is just something that we don’t really get to see Russian women do or Eastern European women do. In a kind of homey, funny, ridiculous kind of way.
SS: I was really moved by how you handle the characters of the parents, especially the mom. We don’t actually see her in the film, but she has such a strong presence. And that line where Sarah apologizes for not being her mom was just so resonant. She’s this Ivy League-educated scientist who’s basically trying to cure cancer and yet, she has this deference to her mother.
NM: Yeah, and not being able to live up to her. Yeah, I think that’s true. I think we do that with our parents a lot of the time, right? Like, there are things that they have in spades that we don’t have. And depending on what that thing is, we always look at it as a failing on our part, that we are not living up to whatever particular expectation that is. And so, I just thought that I wanted to kind of tip my hat to that struggle. Just the fact that we don’t have to be our parents, you know? What he says to Sarah, after she says that is, “You get to define who you are.” I’m glad that moment resonated with you because it’s very poignant for me too.
SS: Was there ever a version of this where we actually see the mother in flashbacks or otherwise?
NM: There wasn’t. Maybe in script. Maybe one draft of the script had a flashback, and then we just decided that it was actually more interesting to kind of leave her up to the imagination. Like this woman who was larger than life that ran this Christian, neighborhood bookstore and everyone adored her. I mean, we see her in photos. But I really thought that was something again that I made a conscious choice to lean away from, so that she could just live large in the mind of the viewer in the same way that she lives large in Sarah’s mind.
SS: The film is currently seeking distribution. Are you excited or nervous about the prospect of Ghanaian people especially seeing the film?
NM: Magnolia Pictures acquired the international and domestic sales rights. So they’re representing the film, which is confusing because most people think of Magnolia as a distributor. But yes, if Netflix comes riding in on their white horse and wants to put this in 150 countries, I would not say no.
But you know the movie The Farewell? I remember that movie, which was such a critical darling here in the US. It fell very flat in China. Nobody was interested among Chinese moviegoers. Chinese moviegoers were not interested in seeing themselves reflected through the eyes of a Chinese-American right now. That was really for our benefit. Like, you and I non-Chinese people. So in that way, I’m kind of prepared for Ghanaian people to just be like, “Meh.” I think it resonates frankly, more with the diaspora than it does with Ghanians back home. But that’s just my instinct. I could be totally wrong.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]