“Queen of Glory,” a new indie drama about a doctoral student whose plans are upended when her mother dies unexpectedly and leaves her the family’s Christian bookstore, is a remarkable feature film directing debut for Nana Mensah.
Not only does its premiere at this year’s Tribeca Festival herald the arrival of a compelling new cinematic voice, it also represents an impressive triple act. Mensah didn’t just direct the movie. She wrote the script and stars in the picture, as well. That was partly a necessity, she claims, one that arose because of the film’s shoestring budget. Mensah, best known for her work in NBC’s “New Amsterdam” and the indie drama “Farewell Amor,” also helped raise the money for the production and, in a case of art imitating life, convinced her parents to let her turn their Christian bookstore into a film set.
“Queen of Glory” will be released theatrically by Magnolia. See the film’s poster below, debuting exclusively on Variety.
What was the inspiration for “Queen of Glory”?
I had written a lavish $100 million biopic set in Ghana in the 1940s and I showed it to my dear filmmaker friend. I was like, “Do you think I can get this made?” And she was like, “Bitch no. No one knows who you are. Who is going to give you $100 million to make this movie?” She told me to go away, write something small, make something intimate and worry about the $100 million movie later. My family owns a Christian book store in the Bronx, so I knew I could shoot there for free so that’s how “Queen of Glory” was born.
How much of this film is fiction and how much is drawn on personal experience?
The only thing that’s true about it is that like the lead character, I am Ghanian American and I don’t quite feel at home in Ghana and I don’t quite feel at home in America. I exist in this nebulous, intermediary place. I have heard my friends who are first-generation or biracial describe similar things.
What did your parents think about having their bookstore turned into a film set?
This is a great opportunity for me to apologize. They had no idea what they were getting into. They have a dedicated core of 10 to 15 customers. And now all of a sudden, you have a crew of 20-some people, most of whom are in their 20s and 30s, and most of whom are atheists, descending upon this Christian bookstore. It could have been a disaster, but we tried to be respectful of the space. Because it’s a Christian bookstore we shot on Sundays, when it’s usually closed so we wouldn’t interfere with business.
You mentioned in your filmmaker statement that you’ve always felt like the Bronx was incredibly cinematic. What do you mean by that?
It feels like the Bronx is the most diverse borough. You have this Caribbean, Jamaican, West African, third-generation Italian, it’s a mishmash and its own ecosystem. When you say “the Bronx,” especially to people outside New York, it’s like, “Oh violence, oh guns.” It’s not like that. There are parts that are beautiful and peaceful, and parts that are average and middle class, and I wanted to speak to that. I wanted to set it in the Bronx and there be no guns. Boroughs have stereotypes that get carried for generations without being examined.
This may not have cost $100 million, but it’s hard to get financing for indie movies. What challenges did you face?
It was extremely hard to raise the money. If you look at my networks, I went to a boarding school in Connecticut and then I went to the University of Pennsylvania and I also lived in New York in this Ghanaian community. Ghanaians are not accustomed to investing in film. If you have an app, if you have a business, show me a business and let’s go. But investing in a film is a no. Then my friends from college, they were working in banks for 80 hours a week and didn’t have money to invest in a film. So that was a no. I didn’t know any person who was like, “Let me write you a check.” So we bootstrapped it and took meetings with friends of friends and asked people to introduce us to other people so we could maximize our network. That’s how we found a group of investors. Then we did Kickstarter and then we put in money ourselves. I did not know I needed an MBA to be a filmmaker. There was waterfall recoupment strategies and music clearances, and all this stuff I didn’t realize I needed to know.
How did you want your film to differentiate itself from other movies and stories about the immigrant experience?
A lot of times when I hear that a movie deals with the African immigrant experience I’m expecting a lot of suffering. I’m expecting a lot of hardship and toil and being taken advantage of and just depressing stories. That is a thing that happens. I don’t want to shy away from it. However, that was not my parents’ experience. My parents definitely hustled to be here. But that was not their experience. There was a lot of joy. There was a lot of community. There was a lot of coming together.
What does it mean to have the film premiere at Tribeca?
I was supposed to catch a really early flight and I got the message that we’d been selected. I went, “huh,” and got an Uber, went to the airport, checked in, took my seat. As we were getting ready to take off, I exploded into tears, and not just any tears, but projectile tears. My seat-mate must have wondered what was wrong with me. But to have a New York story have its premiere in New York feels like a wonderful dovetailing of experience.
You directed the film, wrote it and appear in nearly every scene. Did you always plan to juggle those three roles?
It was not my choice to wear all three hats. It was a budgetary necessity.