Nana Mensah is a Ghanaian-American actor, writer, and director. This summer, she will appear in a series regular role opposite Sandra Oh and Bob Balaban in Netflix’s “The Chair” and this fall, she will reprise her role in the Off-Broadway play “Nollywood Dreams.” Most recently, Mensah was a staff writer on season two of “Random Acts of Flyness” at HBO and is currently staff writing on Amazon’s “The Power.” She also co-wrote and co-starred in the second season of Netflix’s “Bonding.”
“Queen of Glory” is screening at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival, which is taking place June 9-20.
W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.
NM: Sarah, a doctoral student at Columbia University, is weeks away from following her very married boyfriend to Ohio when her mother suddenly dies, leaving Sarah the owner of a small but beloved Christian bookstore in the Bronx. Tasked with planning a culturally respectful funeral befitting the family matriarch, Sarah must juggle familial expectations while navigating the reappearance of her estranged father, all while walking to tightrope of being both American and the child of African immigrants.
W&H: What drew you to this story?
NM: Honestly? I had a script that would have — will someday?! — cost millions to make, and I showed it to a good friend who is a filmmaker. She told me, “This is great, but who is going to bank the kind of money you need on this project when you don’t have an established track record as a writer?” She suggested writing an indie film and focusing it on things I could access cheaply or for free — basically, following Barry Jenkins’ lead from “Medicine for Melancholy” or Adam Leon’s from “Gimme the Loot.” After all, my family owned a Christian bookstore in the Bronx.
One of our producers, Anya Migdal, was born in the former Soviet Union and is an actor. She was generally fed up with the roles she was called in for, 90 percent of which were predicated on Russian or Eastern European stereotypes. I felt similarly about my auditions, which were often to portray unfathomably downtrodden Black American or African women. It was depressing.
I started crafting a narrative out of and in reaction to those things that were personal to me.
W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?
NM: I want people to ponder the first generation and immigrant experiences with more fullness.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
NM: Money, money, money, money. Even with donated locations and calling in all your favors from friends and family, you still gotta pay your crew something. You still gotta feed them and transport them. You still gotta rent high-end camera equipment if you want the film to look good. And all of that costs money.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have access to many people who were interested in bankrolling an indie film set in the Bronx by a first-time director and starring a relatively unknown dark-skinned female lead. Shockingly! So that made money the biggest challenge by far.
A second challenge was self-directing. I was unreasonably blessed to get producer Jamund Washington on board this project very early, and he was a godsend. He would help my shot list come to fruition while I was in the makeup chair and be on monitor during scenes. I came to trust him implicitly, so this system — while certainly not for everyone — worked for us. This became critical because I didn’t have to stop to review each take or be in two places at once. Everyone needs a Jamund.
W&H: How did you get your film funded?
NM: It was a hybrid of a few brave investors, a Kickstarter campaign, and self-funding.
W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?
NM: Necessity. I wasn’t given artistic opportunities anywhere else, so I had to go out and make some.
W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?
NM: I think the adage “there’s cheap, there’s good, and there’s fast — pick two” is my life mantra. I know it’s mostly applied to filmmaking, but I’ve found it works for everything. And it encourages me to have patience when things are going too slow for my liking, which leads me to the worst piece of advice, “Patience is a virtue,” because fuck that.
Another great piece of advice I got from the same friend who encouraged me to write an indie. When “Queen of Glory” had stalled for what felt like the 100th time, she reminded me to creatively diversify because someday my film will be in a festival, where producers and executives I meet will ask what else I’ve got. She told me, “You better be ready with that next project. They’ve got short attention spans.”
W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors?
NM: Follow your instinct about collaborators. Cut ties early and often when a partnership doesn’t feel right. In my experience as a cisgendered woman, I often feel the need to be overly accommodating, which is death to a creative union.
Compromise is okay! But don’t be overly accommodating.
W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.
NM: I had the great pleasure of seeing Janicza Bravo’s “Zola” at Sundance 2020 and I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so hard in a theater in my life. Not only is the film beautifully shot, but it perfectly highlights the nuances of being a Black woman in America during the gong show that is late-stage capitalism. It is truly just, chef’s kiss.
W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how?
NM: Yes, I have the good fortune of being a writer — probably the first time those words have been uttered in that order — and that allowed me to work and be creative during an unbelievably fraught time. Writers’ rooms went virtual and studios still heard pitches even though production, and the world, had stopped.
Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t write “King Lear” or anything. I was initially absolutely panicked — I was in New York in spring 2020 and spent all my time buying black-market hand sanitizer and wiping down door handles — but after that first swell, a sort of normalcy emerged for me. And in that normalcy, I was able to carve out a routine that allowed me to return to some long-gestating projects that deserved my attention.
W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make Hollywood and/or the doc world more inclusive?
NM: Oh, I have no idea. Shall we just torch the whole thing and start over?