'Nanny' Filmmaker Nikyatu Jusu on Motherhood as an Identity in Her West African Folklore-infused Horror Film

'This is very much a story of the sacrifice that particularly Black and brown mothers have to make,' the writer-director tells Metacritic.
by Annie Lyons — 

From left to right: Anna Diop and Rose Decker in 'Nanny'

Amazon Studios

In Nikyatu Jusu's Nanny, a comforting meal becomes a symbol of racialized othering. 

The fablelike psychological horror follows Aisha (Anna Diop), an undocumented Senegalese immigrant who finds work as a nanny with an affluent white family. But as she adjusts to life in New York City, part of Aisha lingers back home where her young son Lamine (Jahleel Kamara) still resides. Hoping to bring him over soon but forced to settle for all-too-short video calls and precious memories in the waiting time, Aisha experiences a strange dissonance as she begins caring for another child.

Caregiving sees Aisha give more and more of herself. She shares thieboudienne, a Senegalese rice dish, with her young charge Rose (Rose Decker), but when controlling mother Amy (Michelle Monaghan) comes home one day, she flies into a tirade against Aisha, scolding that the meal is surely too spicy for her daughter's taste buds — never mind that Rose clearly savors it and the family has failed to keep the fridge stocked with other options. During the next mealtime, Aisha scrapes unappealing pasta into a bowl, much to her charge's chagrin. 

The othering of her food is just one microagression that Aisha suffers in her tenure with Amy, who reaches for gender solidarity but lacks awareness of their power dynamic, and father Adam (Morgan Spector), a photojournalist with a fetishistic gaze toward Black protesters. And as the family demands increasingly more of Aisha, they fall increasingly behind on her pay, a threat to Lamine's arrival. Aisha's sense of foreboding grows as she begins experiencing visions of two figures from West African folklore: trickster figure Anansi the spider and water entity Mami Wata. Throughout, Diop reveals Aisha's constant calibration as she weighs how to maneuver the exploitative situation. 

"Restraint is the right word. It's something that a lot of Black women understand in navigating certain spaces," Jusu tells Metacritic of her protagonist. "There's the angry Black woman trope that a lot of people try to avoid. It's like, even though you're having to swallow these indignities, you don't want to resort to that trope because it has been so maligned."

"You have to survive based on these people's moods and temperaments," the writer-director continues. "You just really learn to bite your tongue until you can't."

The daughter of Sierra Leonan immigrants, Jusu deftly weaves together genre elements with keen considerations of Blackness, gender, and displacement. Her acclaimed 2019 short film Suicide By Sunlight, soon to be expanded into a feature with Jordan Peele's Monkeypaw Productions, follows a day-walking Black vampire, protected from the sun by her melanin, who's struggling to regain custody of her children. 

The Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning Nanny marks her directorial and screenwriting feature film debut. She keeps the audience firmly immersed in Aisha's perspective throughout, accentuated by lush, haunting visuals from cinematographer Rina Yang. Gendered anti-Blackness informs part of Aisha's experience, but only part — Jusu also shows the joy and connection she finds with doorman Malik (Sinqua Walls) and his grandmother, who helps elucidate the meaning of her visions as the spirits pave the way for Aisha's inner transformation. In many ways, Nanny feels like a love letter penned to immigrant mothers and underseen domestic workers of color. 

"There are pieces of me in Amy, there are pieces of me in Aisha, there are pieces of me in every single character that I wrote," Jusu says. "My mother made a lot of sacrifices for me, and now what does it mean to elevate to a class that your parents only wish that they could have inhabited? What does it mean to come from a really humble beginnings and now be straddling a different class from your own parents?" 

Here, Jusu talks to Metacritic about dissecting the American Dream, embracing different meanings of time, and eluding imposed genre constrictions. 

So much of Aisha's identity revolves around her being a mother. There's that heartbreaking early scene where we see her singing a lullaby to Lamine's picture on her phone. Caring for another person's child and having that aspect of her identity kind of subsumed is really destabilizing, especially as she's forced to keep assimilating. What did you hope to explore in this dual depiction of motherhood and domestic work?

This is very much Aisha's story. This is very much a story of the sacrifice that particularly Black and brown mothers have to make. But also, it's a story about the ways that capitalism claims to support mothers in this society, and yet does everything but that. Women do disproportionate labor in the household and still have to show up for work and outsource someone literally caring for your child, like that's a big variable to outsource. I think that we live in a society where these people who are doing this essential work are taken for granted and are made invisible by the mainstream. And yet, these are the people cooking your food, raising your children. There's a lot of power in these jobs, even though they're not being acknowledged as powerful jobs, and these people are not being paid effectively. There are a lot of things that I was thinking about.

That also plays into Aisha's experience as an immigrant. She's torn between living back home and the pursuit of this exclusionary American dream. There's that line in her conversation with her friend Sallay in the hair parlor that I found so telling: "Work until you die, the American dream, right?"

I'm first gen — my parents are from Sierra Leone, my family's from Sierra Leone — and it's an ongoing joke, ever since I was a kid. Not even a joke, it's like you have to laugh to keep from crying. But when you go back home, when I go to Sierra Leone, or when I go to quote-unquote third world nations, the mental health aspect of those places is so much better because people are not working themselves to death. There's a village mentality, there's a community. We're living in a society that is really individualized. People have no sense of community and no sense of a village. The American Dream is a nightmare, which is why I chose horror as one of the conduits to tell this story. 

If I'm correct, Aisha being Senegalese wasn't originally in the script, but you wanted to lean into the culture of whichever actress you ended up casting. After Anna was cast, what did that process look like? What did you want to bring in from Senegalese culture?

What's beautiful about screenplays, I think if you're a smart director, you know that they're a springboard. They're not a bible. They become something that is to be interpreted, and the gaps are to be filled in by real human beings. I love working with people and making the character theirs. If this dialogue doesn't sound right in your mouth, how can we rephrase this? Sinqua as Malik, he did a lot of improv. With Anna, Sierra Leone and Senegalese cultures are very different, but there's also a lot of similarities in West Africa in terms of food and what is valued and fabric and texture and color. So really, it was just a matter of making things even more specific once we cast Anna. It was like thieboudienne, that is a dish that's really poignant for Senegalese people. Wolof, the tribal language that she speaks, we had a dialect coach from Senegal who really helped enhance Anna's authenticity. Once you lock in the person, it's really just about building the world around honesty and truth.

Turning to the film's visual language, Amy and Adam's apartment, even with the colorful lighting in the hallway, still feels quite cold and sterile, especially compared to the bright yellow room that Aisha's staying in. How did you approach crafting the feeling of the different places that Aisha moves through? 

I love these questions because I get to talk about my collaborators. Jonathan Guggenheim was our production designer. I had an amazing production design team and we talked ad nauseam, including Charlese Antoinette, our costume designer, about color palette, and the ways that we're using these water motifs in the film and the ways that even though Amy and Adam's space is filled with these artifacts from around the world, it's lacking soul. The ways that Aisha when she's wearing marigold or oranges and she's immersed in her community, it's warmer. It's a warm embrace. These were things that were mapped out in prep, but we definitely have a water motif. Most of what happens in terms of Anansi and Mami Wata that feels menacing is very much couched in Amy and Adam's home, and so that lagoon aqua color palette made sense for that space. Even though typically blues feel like a warm embrace, in that space it feels, like you said, sterile for various reasons. These were all things that we talked about a lot, but my team really brought it together. 

Anansi and Mami Wata add another dimension to Nanny with an emphasis that their intentions and methods as chaos agents go beyond human understanding a bit. There's that line from Malik's grandmother about the spirits' tools are not always kind. Tell me more about both finding inspiration in their stories and leaning into that ambiguity.

What I love about West African folklore and indigenous folklore, African diasporic folklore, is that it's not about [binaries]. America has a tendency to have these binary good-bad, black-white, and there's no space for the in-between, especially in our [media], which is why I love international content — because there's space for ambiguity, there's space for subtext. These figures are always navigating the liminal, the in-between, alive and dead simultaneously, reality versus the spiritual realm, but they're always existing simultaneously. Like, what is time? Time is something that has become this capitalistic tool that it's like, "This is what time is." But no, this has not always been what time is! Time is a little bit more amorphous and slippery for other cultures. I'm always trying to figure out how to convey that without completely losing my audience. [Laughs] Because it is a little bit abstract! I'm self-aware enough to know that some of my ideas are really abstract. But it's a space I'm constantly trying to figure out how to convey in my work, because I respect the truth of our universe, which is that, you know, time is complicated, and it is a tool of capitalism in the ways that we understand it.

There's really almost a sensuality with Mami Wata, especially in the encounter with Aisha at the pool. What was important to you to convey with Mami Wata's design and look?

We had an amazing team, again, in the VFX department, and we had a stuntwoman who I chose because of her ability to move underwater. We had a combination of practical effects and a little bit of CGI, very little bit because obviously our budget couldn't support a lot of CGI. We had to lean into practical effects, which are also very expensive. But [for] her scaling, Risha Rox, our makeup artist, really did an amazing job of talking to our VFX team. Because a lot of VFX teams, most of them are white male prominent, so they don't necessarily always understand the variations of Black skin tones and the ways that color palette plays with different Black skin tones. You can't give a woman with my complexion a hyper-green tail; it's gonna look a little weird. Color palette was a big thing that we talked about [as was] scaling, fitting her, fitting our mermaid with practical casing, and going through a lot of trial and error. Her hairstyle was something that we talked about for a long time because the practicality of having her hair loose in water, and water is such a capricious element, we needed something a little more static. 

You've talked a little bit about your love for international stories and embracing ambiguity and subtext. What are some films or maybe other filmmakers that you really find inspiration in, especially when it comes to how you approach genre? 

Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho, Lynne Ramsay, Jennifer Kent, even Michael Haneke, Kasi Lemmons; the list is long! What I think all these people share is that they just have such a unique, edgy, innovative approach to genre. They're not allowing themselves to be pigeonholed into one genre, like within one Bong Joon-ho film, you get a dark comedy, you get a family drama, you get a creature feature. It's like, OK, if they can do cross-genre, they're giving me permission to do cross-genre. Even though Hollywood is very like, "Is it horror? Is it a thriller?" You see these conversations that are like, "Well, it's not really a thriller. It's not really…" It's like, are you going to engage with the work or not? Because now you're just resting on jargon. That's preventing you from engaging with the work. So what I love about [those filmmakers] is their ability to maneuver these different genres with so much style and grace.

Nanny is in theaters now and will be available on Prime Video on Dec. 16.

Get to know Nikyatu Jusu:
Jusu makes her directorial and screenwriting feature film debut with Nanny(Metascore: 66). She will soon expand her acclaimed short film Suicide by Sunlight into a feature, and is also slated to helm an upcoming sequel to Night of the Living Dead