The actress Nana Mensah earned herself a deserved career boost last year as the overlooked lecturer Yaz in Netflix's enjoyable campus satire The Chair. With no second season forthcoming, here is Mensah's debut as writer-director-star, about which I have to confess I'm far less enthusiastic than the majority of my colleagues. With its Columbia University backdrop, Queen of Glory unfolds not a million miles away from the milieu of Mensah's former day job, but it's hamstrung by an inherently static scenario - doctoral student Sarah holes up with her difficult father upon her mother's death - which forever feels like a sitcom pitch (maybe an elevated sitcom, along Atlanta or Ramy lines) that's taken a wrong turn at some stage in the development process, stranding everybody in dusty, poky, nondescript interiors.
To parse Mensah's input: she can hold the screen and garner our sympathies, even in a shellshocked-and-listless characterisation such as this, but then this is nothing we didn't already know from her earlier work. As a writer, the jury's very much out. This script has gouts of well-observed, personal, specific material - like the auntie who insists on reciting absurdly long prayers upon decanting soup for dinner - but mostly proceeds with middling-to-low comic energy. The supporting roles are altogether sketchily defined, particularly when set against those of a comparably budgeted indie like last year's Shiva Baby, and too often Mensah reverts to having everyone on screen run around shouting when there's nothing funnier for them to say or do.
As a director, however, she barely earns a passing grade. The bulk of Queen of Glory is a hash of rudimentary longshots and bluntly televisual close-ups, connected by some curious blocking choices, interrupted by largely anonymous studies of Bronx streetcorners. (Sarah's married lover is played by Adam Leon, the writer-director who gave us the glorious Gimme the Loot and Tramps, and I wished he'd taken over.) The most striking material in a very mixed bag is some passing archive footage of mid-20th century African life, which has a texture and emotional heft Mensah's scrappy fiction doesn't. There may well be a great doc to be made about the sons and daughters of New York's diaspora, but even to consider that is to admit one of the major problems with Queen of Glory: it would surely be more engaging and enlightening in any form other than the oddly shrugging, utterly indifferent-looking one it presently takes.
Queen of Glory opens in selected cinemas from today.