Film & TV Miss N

Nana Mensah on her directorial feature debuting at TriBeCa, tenacity in filmmaking and being Ghanaian-American.

Much has changed in the time since Nana Mensah first had the idea for her directorial feature debut — a dark comedy about a Ghanaian-American scientist trying to reconcile her family heritage in the wake of her mother’s death— and began the Kickstarter in 2014 that would help turn it into a film. It may have taken a few years, but the movie, Queen of Glory, is now playing as part of the TriBeCa Film Festival’s 20th edition, with a world premiere set to take place at Hudson River Park on June 15th.

[This story was first published on OkayAfrica.]

When Mensah began working on the film, she was trying to break into an industry that lacked roles for complex, conflicted characters, particularly for Black women, and so she co-founded a production company with her friend Anya Migdal to create those very kinds of projects. She has since forged a solid stage and screen career, with roles in Netflix’s Bonding and 13 Reasons Why, as well as NBC’s New Amsterdam, and in theatrical productions alongside the likes of Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline and Anthony Mackie. Last year she was in Ekwa Msinga’s Farewell Amor, as well as Apple’s Anthology series Little America, and she’ll soon be seen in Netflix’s The Chair with Sandra Oh this summer and Kogonada’s upcoming film After Yang, with Colin Farrell. Yet through it all, Mensah has never lost sight of finishing her first film project.

Q: You’ve traveled an incredibly tenacious journey with this film, from 2014 until now. What would you say has kept you sticking with this for so many years?

Nana Mensah: I definitely think I am tenacious. I think that’s definitely the word. And I also think that I had a really good team and we just decided to kind of buckle down. We came up with the idea and we started to make it when all of us were really early in our careers, and we really needed the film. And then we each kind of started working a little bit more, the producers started producing other stuff, I started working more in film and television. And then we didn’t need the film as much anymore. But then it was still like that kind of thing in the back of our minds, like, we got to come back and finish it, we got to really buckle down and make this film. And so we did. And it was very, very, very rewarding, even though it was really tough. So I guess the answer to your question is tenacity and breaks.

Q: A lot has changed for you in the time since you started it. Do you see think you’ve changed as a filmmaker and actress from back then to now?

Mensah: I don’t think somebody watching it for the first time could tell, but when I watch it, I see my own growth as an actor. I can tell where I feel a little bit more in my skin in certain places. I think I’m probably more confident. I hate to say it, but external validation will do that for you, working on somebody else’s set, somebody else paying you to act, which had not happened to me up until this point, when we began this journey. So I think that was also really exciting. And, and, you know, just gives you a little bit of wind underneath your sails.

Q: And how has the character of Sarah grown with you over this time? When you first came up with her, she was a character we didn’t often see on screens, but the industry is changing somewhat in that respect?

Mensah: I think she did evolve, but in a way that felt pretty organic to me. And, yeah, I felt like it was really important for me to tell a story about a Black woman who’s not suffering — I mean, she’s suffering in a way, existentially, like, she’s messing up in her personal life, but there is no oppressive force that is bearing down on her in that way, because I don’t know, that kind of bores me, I just feel like we’ve seen enough of it, and I’m ready to do something else. And that’s not been my experience. That’s not my lived experience. I think a lot of times when you tell immigrant stories or first generation stories, there’s a lot of pain and strife. And there is some pain in this film, for sure, but there’s also a lot of joy, and there’s humor, and I just wanted to lean into that a little bit more. That was pretty important to me.

Q: What would you say is the biggest thing you’ve learned over the time that it’s taken to make this film. What did you learn about yourself and filmmaking itself?

Mensah: I learned that there’s good, there’s cheap, and there’s fast, and you have to pick two. That’s what I’ve learned. You can’t have all three.

Q: You filmed in the Bronx, which has the largest population of Ghanians in the US. I understand you have some family there, and there is a bookstore there, like the one in your film, but it’s called King of Glory…

Mensah: My family owned that bookstore for a while. And that was actually part of the idea I had to write around things that we could get for cheap or free. I knew I was going to call in some family favors. I decided to write around the bookstore because I knew we had access to the bookstore. Also the bookstore is a great set piece, in terms of the way it looks, there are so many little tchotchkes and the bumper stickers and things like that. It would take a production designer ages and a lot of money to recreate that on a soundstage. And here it was for us to use. I’m really grateful to my family for letting us shoot there. It was really fun filming in the Bronx. I relied so heavily on my family, in terms of helping me. It was really a labor of love and a big, you know, familial effort. The Mensah clan came through.

Q: When you started Queen of Glory, you wanted to help create more complex roles for women — how much do you feel the industry has changed since then?

Mensah: It’s been really inspiring. If this film had come out in 2015, everybody would be like, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen a PhD candidate, dark-skinned Black woman, who’s not a size zero, leading a film. Like, what? And now that’s not as rare. So I think even just the metric of that, in six years, what can change in terms of our expectations as an audience is a sign that things are evolving constantly.

Q: And there’s space for more stories. Just because we have one doesn’t mean that’s it, we’re done.

Mensah: Exactly. There’s no box to check and be like, ‘Okay, great, like, Michaela Cole made I May Destroy You, okay, everyone go home? She’s a Ghanaian Brit, you know, I’m a Ghanaian American, those are two very different experiences. And and so it was really just to bring some authenticity to what I’ve experienced, my lived experience.

Q: How do those two identities co-exist in your life? Do you always tap into your Ghanaian background, perhaps in the food, for example?

Mensah: I live in London, [between London and New York], and my aunt here is constantly finding ways to bring me food that she’s made, so I got quite lucky in that regard. London has a huge Ghanaian population and you can get Ghanaian takeaway easily. Because in New York, if you live in Brooklyn, you’ve got to go all way up to the Bronx to get yourself some Ghanaian food, and so that part is tough. But I’ve heard a lot from my friends who are biracial, or my other friends who are first gen, that you don’t feel quite at home in Ghana, you don’t feel quite at home in America. There’s like a little bit of distance from both. And so you live in this, like in between kind of nebulous space, and that can feel quite lonely. So I think, also, one of the reasons why I wanted to tell this story from this perspective was to just shine a bit of a light on that. My parents think I’m really American, and my American friends call me their Ghanaian friend. “Nana from Ghana,” that sort of thing. So as we keep mixing and mingling, that’s going to continue, so we might as well start talking about the some of the stories and what those experiences are like.