All I ever want out of a movie is a short trip to someplace I’ve never been, or never really “seen,” to get a look inside lives I’ve never lived. The thrills of action films, frights of horror and delights of romantic comedy are just icing on the cake. It’s that immersion in another world and other lives that counts.
“Queen of Glory” is a light indie dramedy that fills the bill on all counts. Set in an immigrant-rich corner of the Bronx, it’s about a Ghanaian-American grad student coming to grips with herself, her culture, her needs, her future and her body type after the loss of her mother.
It amuses, raises the occasional eyebrow and leaves you with the warm comfort of hope that at least somebody might get it together, find a more promising life path to follow…eventually.
Actress Nena Mensah of Netflix’s academic dramedy “The Chair” stars as Sarah, a grad student finishing up her dissertation in molecular neuro-oncology at Columbia U. She’s busy as a teaching assistant, planning a big move to Ohio State and having an affair with a married professor (Adam Leon) who just might be her supervisor and mentor.
And that move? She’s following him as he takes a better job.
So she doesn’t have time for all the family/Ghanaian drama her Dad-back-in-Ghana adds to her life, or that her mother’s always wrapped up in — gossipy, judgy relatives who notice “You’ve been eating,” and “those hips. You OUGHT to be putting them to good use!”
Then Mom dies, and Sarah’s Ohio apartment-hunting and sexual assignations and dissertation and everything else are put on hold. It doesn’t matter that her mother wanted to be cremated. There’s still a Ghanaian version of a wake, food and drink and condolences with lots of “Where’s your mother? Where’s the BODY?” questions. And that’s the tactful question. Most people want to know about Mom’s will.
And the wake is just a “white funeral” prelude for something more elaborate and more traditional to come, something that Sarah’s forced to plan and mount.
Then there’s her Mom’s roomy townhouse, which needs to be sold, and the small business Mom ran for years, the King of Glory bookstore. The added complication of an employee, a scary-looking ex-con her mother gave a second start to (Meeko Gattuso of TV’s “Euphoria”), who has to be told what’s coming, preferably in the gentlest way possible.
Sarah finds herself sucked back into the world she grew up in after they emigrated from Ghana, entangled in the lives of the gregarious Russian-Americans next door, especially very-pregnant mother of two Kaitlyn (Madeline Weinstein). Their noisy, quarrelsome, culture-clashing lives create just the right comic friction with old-friend Sarah.
“Such a big FAMILY,” the white Russians marvel at the wake.
No, “Everybody’s just Black.”
Mensah makes Sarah smart and cute and competent but riddled with insecurities. No, she won’t “get on the scale” to help an auntie weigh a piece of luggage. No, she won’t share that pizza with you, either. Something other than a lifestyle choice has given her a nauseated aversion to raw meat.
And that guy she’s been seeing? She’s waited on him to leave his wife and kids for three years.
So don’t expect her to tidy everything up quickly, because deflecting, aversion and backing away from decisions is her way.
“Queen of Glory” is a movie of vignettes, street scenes, shots of abandoned sneakers, the homeless man pushing a convoy of shopping carts holding all his possessions, the bootleg DVD-seller hawking his wares from a table in front of the closed “African Movies and Music” shop he might have owned at one time. At least he’s still able to make use of the sign.
Mensah fills her film with local color, African percussion groups provide the beat in this immersion in the New York melting pot. She adds other complications to Sarah’s trials. When her Dad (Oberon K.A. Adjepong) flies over for the funeral of his not-quite-ex wife, Sarah can either confront her issues with him or bend to his every patriarchal, sexist and “traditional” demand.
And that ex-con, Pit? He’s complicated the whole store matter not just by being a trifle scary, but by baking “Bible bar” cookies that make the place a lot more popular than your average trinket/CD/bumper sticker and T-shirt filled “book store.”
“Queen of Glory” isn’t some deep, complex interior journey. It’s a take-stock dramedy that bubbles over with sometimes funny, fractious life. I love the way Mensah stages one chat with Kaitlyn in her doorway, pregnant and hellbent on being a good neighbor and hostess to Sarah while in the foreground, upstairs in their townhouse looking down, we’re seeing and hearing bedlam as sisters shriek and quarrel and granny tries to keep the peace.
Not every actor should take that advice, “If you’re not getting the sort of roles you want, write a role you want to play and get it filmed.” Mensah should and did and let’s hope she does it again. And soon.
Cast: Nena Mensah, Meeko Gattuso, Adam Leon, Madeleine Weinstein and Oberon K.A. Adjepong
Credits: Scripted and directed by Nana Mensah. A Film Movement+ release
Running time: 1:18