“If you love someone, they live forever.”
Nikyatu Jusu’s Nanny is a gripping and enchanting tale of surviving the American dream in a strong feature film debut. In a stunning and tragic performance by Anna Diop, Senegalese Aisha moves to New York City in hopes of bringing her son to live with her. Working as a nanny for an affluent white family, Aisha quickly realizes that the American dream is just that: a dream. The illusion of opportunity afforded by the white structures that benefit from her labor. Her sacrifices become the currencies of others.
Nanny is an ode to the immigrant single mother. Both beautiful and terrifying, Nanny explores with painful detail the way white microaggressions work in closed-off spaces – in the intimacy of domestic spaces. The haven of these white families becomes spaces of torture and violence against marginalized immigrants like Aisha. It starts subtly, with small things like asking Aisha not to let her daughter eat some of her “spicy” food, all the way to the husband making an inappropriate pass on her, utilizing discomfort on Aisha like the sharpest of knives. Slowly slicing away at her soul with endless shifts and using money as bait.
Jusu has a distinct voice in horror that perhaps isn’t conventional to our interpretations of it. Some might say this film is more of a drama with hints of the supernatural – magical realism and such. But that’s what’s so fascinating about Jusu’s vision of Nanny. There’s no need for theatrical exaggerations of grotesque images of gore and blood when the racial tension in the film is horrifying all on its own. One particular focus of the film is the collection of photographs the husband takes for work. Framed and reflected back at Aisha every time she walks by the office.
Played by Morgan Spector, Adam works as a professional photographer who captures the sorrows of repressed communities and countries. Countries ravaged in the aftermath of colonialism and the ongoing modern version. He hangs them up in his office. An office built of glass walls is where Aisha is told to look but never enter. Visually stunning is how Jusu uses spaces of the home to segregate Aisha from the rest of the family. The glass walls of the office, holding in and owning the tragedies of marginalized communities, represent the veil of whiteness. The way Aisha sees through those walls, she also sees through that family.
Nanny isn’t interested in appeasing the structures that make someone like Aisha leave her birthplace of Senegal and come to the United States. It’s slowly weaving this singular story of Aisha into the fabric of colonialism and its after-effects. A strong message permeates the film and makes it easy to forgive some of the disconnects between the mysticism and the drama of the film. It adds to the overall tone and voice of the film. Jusu could’ve just as easily leaned into the “horror” of the film, like the use of water and siren under the sea, but she didn’t.
She didn’t make it easier for her audience to imagine another “force” behind Aisha’s complicated life. The source of most of her problems stems from the white families she works for. Like all the other immigrant nannies work for. They become the authentic and present powers that dominate her life. They’re the ones to turn on the water, and depending on their mood, they decide just how much and how long to leave it.
In being sparing with her use of horror in the film, Jusu also gave new meaning to African folklore. She reclaimed the origin of mysticism from the many African cultures that now remain extinct due to colonialism. Jusu brought new breath to them and used it to empower Aisha’s story. The story of a mother. Motherhood and its various connotations also become essential parts of this film to further draw contrasts to these characters.
As Aisha struggles to make enough to bring her son with her to America, someone hires her to care for the child. There’s a moment in the film where this tension breaks almost through the screen. More jarring and frightening than any jumpscare is Aisha’s final confrontation with Michelle Monaghan’s character Amy, the mother of the child she’s been hired to care for. After Amy finds out Aisha’s been feeding her daughter “spicy” food, the rubber band snaps between them, especially for Aisha, who’s been buying the girl food from her own money after Amy neglected to do the groceries for weeks. After confronting Amy, Aisha’s defenses are crumbled from exhaustion at fighting structures that were never there to help her.
Nanny is a mosaic for the struggles of marginalized communities like black Americans and black immigrants. Whether it’s through the harrowing recounting of mentally ill black women being shoved to the ground by the police or Aisha’s slow descent into desperation because of the promise of a “good” job, Nanny lets those stories speak for themselves more than the few images of spider shadows and water. The disconnect between the horror and the drama feels intentional, even if not. It seduces its viewers into thinking this is just a horror thrill about institutional failures and colonial history. Nikyatu Jusu has an extraordinary vision that is lacking in the horror genre. One, I hope, we as viewers get to experience more of in the future. – Mariana Delgado
Nanny is pending wide release date. For more Sundance 2022 coverage, keep an eye on our Twitter page and this site!