This film is being screened as part of the 2021 BFI London Film Festival and you can find all of our coverage of the festival here.
Channelling a heartfelt take on the Bronx and invoking the culture brought to the USA by immigrant communities, Queen of Glory finds its feet with a down-to-earth exploration of identity and independence.
Nana Mensah’s film encourages you to go beyond a skin-deep appreciation of community, instead vividly capturing it in all of its depth and nuance. It is this that forms the backdrop of a deeply affecting story, one that doesn’t quite tick every box it strives for but nonetheless stands up tall as a sensitive tale about family, self, and grief.
Ghanaian-American Sarah Obeng (Mensah) is a doctoral student at Columbia University, but plans to drop out so she can be with her currently married lover in Ohio. This whole plan is thrown under the bus, however, when Sarah is told that her mother has died. Sarah inherits her Christian bookstore in the Bronx, along with the store’s sole employee Pitt (Meeko Gattuso), who isn’t aware that Sarah wants to sell the shop as soon as possible. And when Sarah’s father Godwin (Oberon K.A. Adjepong) arrives from Ghana and expects a full Ghanaian funeral, Sarah is thrown back into the heart of a family that she cannot but help but feel a world away from.
The tensions and details of assimilation, culture, and family fuel the narrative in a way comparable to Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, with Sarah always feeling a little out of place wherever she is. Her striving for independence always feels interrupted, and she finds herself constantly under the microscope when in the presence of her family. It is a stark contrast to the no-nonsense approach she takes with everybody else in her life. Even though you are not a member of her neighbourhood or her inner circle, you get the unmistakable impression that Sarah’s story—as relatively straightforward as it is—manages to speak volumes about the tensions and realities of immigrant life in 21st century America.
Be it through the script or camerawork, there is always the sense that Sarah feels increasingly overwhelmed by her surroundings and by her situation. This is particularly true of her relationship with her father, who in every shot seems like an unwelcome imposition on Sarah’s life. It is only when Sarah connects to her Ghanaian cultural roots, as brought to life in deliberately jarring fashion by black-and-white footage from Ghana itself, that she can start to open up and realise for herself where she wants her life to go. Moments of cultural and social specificity interwoven throughout the story consistently, and deliberately, seem to go against the way Sarah conducts herself. Behind an otherwise uncomplicated story resides a fascinating balancing act between the self and others, of where you are versus where you have been, and of history versus the present day. The attention paid to these tensions ensure that, for a relatively short film, Queen of Glory is never short of fascinating.
As well as an introspective drama, Queen of Glory also aims to be a new breed of millennial comedy. In this secondary task it doesn’t quite succeed. Moments of genuine humour are rarer than you would hope—although Sarah’s dabbling with weed cookies is fun to watch. Almost poetically, given how Sarah feels trapped between two different worlds, Mensah is also seemingly unsure whether to fully embrace the comedy of the situation or remain a more straight-faced narrative. In the end, the film dips in and out of both, and feels less convincing for it. A few (admittedly less important) plot points also feel unresolved amidst the attention paid to the main story, with certain arcs feeling frustratingly abandoned whenever the focus risks shifting from the crux of the matter.
What saves Queen of Glory, however, is the characters, particularly Sarah, who has all the depth and range of emotion that you could possibly hope for. Mensah is phenomenal, capturing all of Sarah’s pains with just the merest looks or actions, before letting it all out in a deeply affecting funeral scene towards the film’s end. Her relationship with Pitt is also a highlight, the pair overcoming initial awkwardness to enjoy a blossoming friendship that feels as genuine as it is unexpected. The ex-con is almost the polar opposite of Sarah: satisfied with how his life has changed for the better and far more sure of himself. Gattuso deserves massive credit for making Pitt not just so likeable, but an indispensable part of the world you are invited into. Watch Pitt for twenty minutes, and you will already feel like you have known him your whole life.
The limitations of low-budget filmmaking gets to Mensah at various points, with a film that cannot firmly decide on its genre and which runs out of minutes to explore various points of interest. Even so, Queen of Glory masterfully uses dilemmas of culture and selfhood to craft a wonderful, intimate story of discovery. Both behind the camera and in front of it, Mensah is incredible to watch as she captures a community and family in all of its colour and subtlety.
Words by James Hanton
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