Queen of Glory lives in its details, layering myriad cultural specificities and carefully crafting interpersonal dynamics in what amounts to a modest but moving film.
Sarah Obeng (played by Queen of Glory‘s writer and director, Nana Mensah), is a doctoral neurology student at Columbia who’s well-versed in the trite-but-true travails of the New York City Immigrant Experience™, including but not limited to: long subway rides to distant ethnic enclaves, aunties who seem to deal exclusively in backhanded compliments, and an estranged parent who’d rather live in the homeland. Luckily, she’s decamping to Ohio in a mere six weeks where she can tune out her cultural baggage and focus on her dissertation. But when Sarah’s mother unexpectedly dies, she’s suddenly thrust into the trenches of the city’s vibrant Ghanaian-American community, forced to contend with the reappearance of her demanding father while dealing with the family’s Christian bookstore, King of Heaven. On top of all that, she must also organize an elaborate, culturally appropriate send-off for her mother.
Just a few miles north but worlds away from her Columbia cocoon, Sarah’s braininess is no match for the onslaught of pushy relatives and emotionally taxing responsibilities that come with inheriting her mother’s estate. Actress and first-time director Nana Mensah is entirely believable as an overwhelmed young woman who’s a fish out of water in her own culture. In one of the film’s earliest scenes, an auntie mockingly compares Sarah to a white woman for refusing to be weighed. Later, another auntie hoots at her hips while taking her measurements for a custom funeral outfit. Her father Godwin (Oberon K.A. Adjepong), who’s been living in Ghana for an unspecified amount of time and returns as if nothing is wrong, treats her like a housemaid. And in one telling scene, Lyle, Sarah’s married, middle-aged boyfriend, mispronounces Ghana’s capital Accra, then ignores her aggrieved correction. This dynamic — mocked by her family, infantilized by her father, disrespected by her boyfriend, yet still treated as someone who’s expected to have all the answers — is an emotional landmine that Mensah adroitly and sympathetically navigates.
Queen of Glory’s most interesting relationship is between Sarah and Pitt (Meeko Gattuso), King of Heaven’s sole employee. A gruff, heavily tattooed ex-con, he and Sarah strike up an unlikely but genuine friendship as two people who would otherwise never cross paths but are connected by her mother. As Sarah spends more time in the bookstore, she realizes how important it is to the neighborhood and how much she stands to learn from Pitt. Despite his past, he’s made peace with himself and his choices: he has a fulfilling marriage, a solid place in the community, and the respect of the people he cares about. When Sarah goes behind Pitt’s back to try and sell the bookstore, the betrayal is all the more acute given Pitt’s loyalty to her mother.
It’s a misstep on Sarah’s part, but it’s not fatal. Mensah balances heavy themes of immigration and assimilation, grief, and cultural alienation with a winsome, almost buoyant tone that keeps viewers perpetually rooting for the main characters despite their mistakes. Mensah, who grew up in this particular stretch of the Bronx, clearly knows and loves it well; recurring local fixtures, including a bootleg DVD salesman outside the store and Sarah’s boisterous next-door neighbors, give Queen of Glory a warm, lived-in feel. So too does the archival footage of Ghanaian funeral rites that Mensah intersperses throughout the film. Sarah might not really know what she’s doing, but this footage binds her to a lineage that extends farther than even she knows: past her family in New York all the way to her Ghanaian birthright. When Sarah symbolically cuts her straightened wig, then arrives at the funeral ceremony with a halo of natural hair and a fiery red dress (Ghana’s traditional color of mourning), she’s communicating not just grief, but profound personal growth.