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‘Queen of Glory’: A child of Ghanaian immigrants at sea in the Bronx

Nana Mensah wrote, directed and stars in a New York story about reconnecting with your roots

Nana Mensah, right, and Meeko Gattuso in “Queen of Glory.” (Film Movement)
(2.5 stars)

Actress Nana Mensah (“After Yang”) makes an impressive debut as a writer-director with “Queen of Glory,” a dry comedy of culture clashes, both ethnic and generational. Mensah fondly depicts the world of a Ghanaian American who has for the most part kept her heritage at a distance. But even in New York City, far from her homeland, she inevitably reconnects with tradition.

Mensah stars as Sarah, a doctoral student in molecular neuro-oncology at Columbia University. She’s having an affair with Lyle (Adam Leon), a married, nebbishy colleague whom Sarah plans to follow to Ohio, where he’s landed a new job.

But those plans are upended by the death of her mother, who ran a Christian bookstore in the Bronx. Sarah is left to organize both a conventional American funeral and a more involved Ghanaian ceremony. She also has to deal with her estranged father (Oberon K.A. Adjepong), who’s come back from Ghana to attend the funeral.

On top of all that, Sarah has inherited the bookstore, called King of Glory. That’s where Sarah meets Pitt (Meeko Gattuso), the store’s only employee.

Pitt is an ex-con whose face is covered in prison tattoos, but appearances can deceive. “Queen of Glory” gets much of its drama and humor from such misperceptions: Pitt is, somewhat predictably, a pussycat, with a lot to teach Sarah. While the Bronx is less than an hour from Columbia by subway, it feels like a whole other world — one that at times mystifies Sarah.

In her director’s statement, Mensah, the daughter of Ghanaian immigrants, explains that she grew up watching Nollywood films (a term that originally described the Nigerian film industry but has come to include Ghanaian films made in English) as well as American movies about the Black experience. “There seemed to be only two ways of being Black and I wasn’t quite either of them,” Mensah writes. “Queen of Glory” reflects this conflict of identity, in ways both conventional and surprisingly experimental.

Though largely straightforward, the film occasionally seems to dip into Sarah’s consciousness, as grainy movies of Ghana are intercut with scenes in the Bronx. Though her career has been concerned with scientific processes, Sarah begins to remember the rituals of her ancestors. When she stops at a halal butcher shop, for instance, to pick up ingredients for the Ghanaian funeral, visions of farm life are juxtaposed with the cutting of beef ribs, scored to unsettling electronic music. This carnivorous collage overwhelms her. It’s just one way in which Sarah’s emotional reticence is worn down, not just by her mother’s death, but by her work at the bookstore — a reminder of where she comes from.

At 78 minutes, “Queen of Glory” has barely enough time to establish character and relationships, but in production notes, Mensah alludes to budget problems. “We bootstrapped and figured out a way — in true immigrant fashion! — to finish this film, and we are so proud of each other and what we made.”

Mensah packs worlds into that limited time frame: One character that comes into sharp view is the Bronx itself, captured in brief but vivid details, including recurring shots of a sidewalk DVD vendor. “Queen of Glory” is a distinctly New York story, but it feels as if we barely get to know Sarah’s neighborhood. According to Mensah, she grew up feeling like an outsider in her own community. But as happens time and again in this quietly effective film, delving beneath the surface of things can sometimes reveal a little slice of heaven on Earth.

Unrated. At the AFI Silver. Contains some strong language and drug use. In English, Akan and Russian with some subtitles. 78 minutes.