Conversation With Writer/Director Nikyatu Jusu

Though the film Nanny is a singular work, it does stand on the shoulders of many others.

Nikyatu Jusu is an independent writer, director, and Assistant Professor in Film & Video, who makes her feature debut with Nanny, a psychological horror fable of displacement.

In Nanny, Aisha (Anna Diop), a woman who recently emigrated from Senegal, is hired to care for the daughter of an affluent couple (Michelle Monaghan and Morgan Spector) living in New York City. Haunted by the absence of the young son she left behind, Aisha hopes her new job will afford her the chance to bring him to the U.S., but becomes increasingly unsettled by the family’s volatile home life. As his arrival approaches, a violent presence begins to invade both her dreams and her reality, threatening the American dream she is painstakingly piecing together.

Jusu names writers Saidiya Hartman, Zora Neale Hurston, Nikki Giovanni, and filmmakers Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho, as well as visual artists like Boscoe Holder and Roy Decarava as influences. “I tried to not just be influenced by the medium that I’m working in, because I find that it just makes your work feel like an homage to other filmmakers, as opposed to a new thing altogether,” said Jusu. “I think if you’re being honest, as an artist, as a filmmaker, especially with yourself and the material, whatever style you choose will be timeless,” she said.

Go behind the scenes of Nanny

Writer/Director Nikyatu Jusu Talks About Nanny

Nanny feels like a love letter to Black women, especially with the visual approach. This is a theme that you are obviously invested in…

Absolutely. I am a Black woman, and I wish more people would ask white men that question about themselves. Do you want to only photograph white men? Are these the only stories they want to tell? Of course, they don’t have to say it because we are all conditioned to accept it. I have a responsibility as a Black woman who loves herself and loves other Black women to bring that imagery to the screen in a fully fleshed out way and I take that responsibility very seriously.

Why do you think that the horror genre works best for you in terms of the social and cultural themes you choose to engage with your work?

I really enjoy genre because it is not so literal. I don’t like work that is didactic. If you want your hand to be held at the movies, then my films probably will never be for you because I love symbolism and allegory. I love showing images that mean so many different things simultaneously, and I think with genre you can play with symbolism in different ways. For instance, what is the monster in us all versus the monster we see in the dark or lurking under our beds? It is a great way to make commentary about humanity without being pedantic or preachy. African folklore and Black diasporic folklore have not been tapped into as much as I would like to see on the screen. And I think we have so many stories and monsters and creatures yet to be adapted so I am really interested in that mythology.

Why are you fascinated with West African mythology, and how are you able to link them in a way that they relate to contemporary concerns about this woman searching for her slice of the American dream?

It has been interesting reading some reviews because I can see now that what I think in my head is very clear but in other peoples’ brains it is different. To me the ideas connect so clearly in my brain and sometimes it is tricky translating it on screen. I think that I have a unique perspective that is very much American, very much African, very much a Black American woman but also a Black African woman. I am at this unique intersection of seeing all sides of the diasporic conversations. I understand what it means to come to America and not be Mandinka or Susu or Temne anymore but to just be Black. This becomes the blanket of commonality whether we accept it or not. Worlds of history and information that we are denied of each other because of this. I see all sides of the coin so to me the connections are very clear.

Describe Aisha in your own words.

Aisha is an observer. She’s a woman of few words — one constantly studying and processing the world around her. She’s ambitious, focused, cunning, graceful, and somewhat selfish, which is a requisite for the drive necessary to engineer the life she wants.

What’s she afraid of, or perhaps more specifically, what is she haunted by?

She’s afraid of losing her child, and losing herself. Like most of us, she’s afraid of failure because for people like her, failure means suffering, even death. The ubiquitous haunting in Nanny is a haunting defined by grief, loss, and systematic obstacles outside of her control.

What specifically did you want to say about motherhood in your debut feature? Bell Hooks defined our current paradigm as an “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” In this iteration of our world, though ciswomen of all races are making gains in their respective careers, they are still disproportionately in charge of domestic labor. These burdens are multiplied for women of color and most specifically Black women. Add to this the burden of inequitable health care for expectant mothers and motherhood becomes a real-life horror story in spite of being vapidly lionized as a revered title. We live in a society that claims to love and support mothers, but its actions show otherwise. Patriarchy enslaves us all and our racial/class hierarchy keeps certain women at the bottom of this oppressive totem pole.

Anna Diop is best known for her television work. She undergoes a lot as an actor in this movie, physically and emotionally. Why did you want to cast her as Aisha?

The industry tossed many names on the table — some more ridiculous than others; however, I had my eye on Anna Diop some time ago as an actress who possessed the poise and authenticity I was seeking for my leading lady. Our casting director Kim Coleman was pivotal in facilitating taped auditions and though she presented me with some compelling options, Anna brought a certain gracefulness and genuineness to her audition. She’s stunning, but she also understands Aisha at a visceral level, even an empirical level. More superficially I needed an actress with a level of athleticism since she would be thrust into water and tossed around a bit by our supernatural haunting.

Aisha is employed by Amy and Adam, a wealthy New York City couple. Describe them and the world they live in. Amy and Adam are a relatively wealthy Tribeca couple. They are self-professed liberals, people who believe they are self-aware, with a deep understanding of what it means to be white in America, and in the world. They even dare occasionally to say out loud that they are “white folks,” a brave proclamation in a world that perceives whiteness as an unspoken identifier while the rest of us are racialized. Their friend circle is mostly like them: well-traveled, successful in their respective careers, polished. They have enough token “friends of color” to feel they don’t inhabit a vapid white vacuum. Their obstacles are restricted to the baseline: existential crisis, loneliness, depression/mental illness, substance abuse, infidelity…basically conflicts of the human condition devoid of the added burdens of being marginalized and/or poor.

Why was Michelle Monaghan the right fit for Amy?

Michelle’s ability to perform and imbue her role with heaping spoonfuls of self-awareness stunned me and made me a stronger director. She was a blessing because Amy could have easily ventured into caricature territory. I’m not interested in depictions of whiteness that feel satirized; I think it’s more compelling and effective to portray whiteness in its banality — its everydayness of microaggressions and cumulative ignorance which become larger systemic issues. Michelle humanized Amy in a way that I hope certain audiences can see themselves within. She’s such a smart, curious performer. We discovered new nuances through conversation, deep reading of the text, and (though meager) rehearsal time.

Describe your familiarity with the immigrant community in New York City. Were you thinking about a specific neighborhood for Aisha’s immediate world?

For Aisha’s immediate world I thought of Harlem, where an entire subsection is actually dubbed Little Senegal. Though I am Sierra Leonean-American and Anna is Senegalese-American, there are some similarities in West African cultures across the board. I was able to tap into that authenticity by leaning into the nuances of Anna’s Senegalese culture: food, language (Wolof), francophone-tinged accent, traditional garb, etc…

Nobody is raising their own children in Nanny. Was this something you wanted to explore in the movie?

No one wins in this imperial racist patriarchy. This is what I want people to understand. Inequities ultimately impact us all whether you are closer to the theoretical “front of the line” in this racial/class hierarchy or at the very back of it. America injects us all with this toxic sense of individualism that yanks many of us away from our more communal, village-oriented roots. When the elders are nurtured, they in turn can help nurture younger generations. Everyone chips in to raise the children when the mothers and fathers have to work. The U.S. conditions us to normalize outsourcing child rearing so we can continue to participate in the rat race of capitalism. None of this is healthy and no one thrives — least of all the children.

Nanny is subtle in its approach to on-screen horror, using mounting paranoia and dread. Describe your approach and strategy to placing your scares.

Most of my horror influences are slow-burn international films: Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, Jayro Bustamante’s La Llorona, Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In, Takashi Miike’s Audition, Kim Jee Woon’s A Tale of Two Sisters…these are a handful of films that inform my horror sensibilities which aren’t necessarily always so formulaic with jump scares every x minutes and easily categorized as “traditional American horror.”

What I appreciate about these cross-genre horror films is the skill level needed to nurture a rising sense of dread that culminates in horrifying catharsis. One of our collaborators described our film as a “thrumming anxiety” and I think that’s a perfect description for what I wanted to convey through Aisha’s journey — this pervasive thrumming anxiety one feels navigating spaces never meant for us to thrive within. It’s not always about obvious outright violence, it’s often about the myriad microscopic ways your humanity is chipped away at, which in turn affects your quality of sleep, which affects your health, which…well, the domino effect is endless. Imagine having to constantly proclaim your life matters. It’s all violence.

You also explore and infuse West African folktales in the movie, specifically Anansi the Spider and Mami Wata, which have symbolic resonance. What is your personal experience with these folktales?

I grew up hearing about Anansi the spider superficially and later in life Mami Wata. Both figures have different iterations and names in African Diasporic cultures and indigenous cultures — the trickster figure in particular (Anansi). As I’ve matured, I’ve formed an affinity for learning about the ways my ancestors resisted and persisted, pulling from their stories as inspiration in these dark times. They survived more treacherous times for me to be here and I’m intrigued by the magical narratives — true or not — we told ourselves and each other in order to thrive.

What effect does Anansi the Spider and Mami Wata have on Aisha over the course of the movie?

Kathleen serves as our guide helping us to superficially understand the presence of both Mami Wata and Anansi. They are African diasporic figures of resistance using different tools: Anansi is a mischievous influence ready to draw blood if necessary. Mami Wata is more of a seductive, sometimes sinister but cunning presence. I am not even scratching the surface of what these figures truly mean. Both figures inspire Aisha to understand her place in this foreign, racialized system. They also inspire her to step into her inherent power and fight back when necessary rather than be a docile and humble servant. Additionally, they want her to comprehend a prescient message that informs her past, present and future. Time isn’t so literal with these figures, nor is the spiritual vs physical realm a concrete binary. We are constantly straddling all of these worlds simultaneously. I am still figuring out how to portray this.

How does Aisha change over the course of this movie?

She steps into a power she always had, a tenaciousness she forgot how to flex. We become beaten down by messaging and imagery that tells us we are less than. This is your fate. I wanted to portray a character who, by divine intervention, remembers she is a warrior.

What did you want to examine or say about race and immigration with this movie?

So many things. Race is a social construct that has us all in a chokehold. I am here because of my immigrant parents. We are a nation of colliding and intersecting human beings from various origins who too often only perceive one another through a lens of artificial identifiers. Senegalese filmmaker Safi Faye said, “As far as I’m concerned, once the film is finished it belongs to the spectators and critics. That’s why I don’t like interviews.” Regardless of my many intentions I hope people who view Nanny become more curious: about their place in the world, about West African Folklore, about the formerly invisible people who live on the periphery of their lives, about their inherent power they simply need to tap into…

Born and raised in Atlanta, Sierra Leonean-American filmmaker Nikyatu Jusu uses film to explore the complexities of dynamic Black female characters. Her films have screened at festivals nationally and internationally. With a BA from Duke University and an MFA from NYU’s Tisch Grad Film school, she has earned awards like NYU’s Spike Lee Fellowship Award, the Princess Grace narrative film grant and Director’s Guild of America Honorable Mentions. Three of her shorts were acquired by and aired on HBO, including Flowers, which she co-wrote and co-directed. Jusu’s feature screenplay Free The Town was one of 12 projects invited to participate in the Sundance Institute’s inaugural Diverse Writers Workshop. Additionally, the film was selected for Africa’s most prestigious Film Market, the 2013 Durban Film Mart and one of five narrative films selected for Film Independent’s Fast Track. Her short film Suicide By Sunlight—a project funded by the production grant THROUGH HER LENS sponsored by the Tribeca Film Institute and Chanel—made its debut at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. This project was also awarded a Rooftop Films/Adrienne Shelly Foundation Short Film Grant. Jusu is an Assistant Professor at George Mason University where she teaches screenwriting and directing.