There is a league of domestic workers pushing strollers, feeding picky babies, and shuttling toddlers from music class to yoga all across New York City. These women, disproportionately of color, are indispensable to city families but are too often invisibilized. Writer-Director Nikyatu Jusushines a light on this workforce in her debut feature Nanny.
Nikyatu Jusu is an independent writer, director, and Assistant Professor in Film & Video. Jusu is the second Black woman director and Nanny is the first horror film to win the Sundance Grand Jury Prize (US Dramatic) 2022.
Inside the walls of a dark and uninviting loft, in one of New York City’s toniest neighborhoods, we meet Aisha (Anna Diop). An immigrant from Senegal with a masters degree in English, Aisha takes a nannying job caring for a small girl named Rose (Rose Decker) so she can bring her son, Lamine, to the United States. Aisha’s seemingly benevolent and affluent white employers are Amy (Michelle Monaghan), a career-driven woman thwarted by more powerful men in her field, and Adam (Morgan Spector), a pseudo progressive photojournalist with a wandering eye who dips in and out of the couple’s home. Nothing is as it seems, and Aisha’s life begins to unravel when her American Dream is punctured by the realities of what it means to be a Black immigrant woman in America.
“My [mother] is the springboard of everything, she’s the springboard of this idea,” said Jusu. “She did a lot of domestic work growing up, but she is a brilliant woman who had goals and dreams of her own that she had to sacrifice for the ‘American Dream,’” the director continued. “The entry point [to the American Dream] for a lot of Black and Brown immigrant women and Black American women is domestic labor.”
Diop, who stars as the Nanny was inspired by her mother’s experiences as well. “I meditated on my own mother’s life. She, like Aisha, was also an immigrant and became a domestic worker. And she did that for more than 20 years,” said the actor. “There are so many similarities between Aisha and my mother, and I think a lot of what I was able to do with this character was innate, because I’ve known her my whole life, and I love her so much,” she continued. “I think it’s just that way that we know things that are bigger than us, but are very much a part of us. It’s our lineage and our ancestors.”
Nanny concerns itself primarily with its protagonist
“I think that in a world that centers a particular gaze, this film does the opposite,” said Nikkia Moulterie, one of the film’s creative producers. “It really was about Aisha, this African woman’s journey through her experience as a nanny in New York,” she continued. “I think it was just always about staying true to Aisha’s experiences and not really having to be responsible to anyone else beyond that.”
Jusu drew on diasporic African traditions as a way of expressing Aisha’s challenges.
“Both Anansi and Mami Wata have different iterations and names in African Diasporic cultures and indigenous cultures — the trickster figure [Anansi] in particular,” Jusu explained. “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,” she said in a previous Q&A.
Amy consistently underpays or neglects to pay Aisha when she’s supposed to, and this, as well as Aisha’s strong bond with Rose, makes Amy jealous, and their new working relationship becomes frayed. But there are similarities to their circumstances too. “I think what I found to be really interesting about the two characters is that they’re these two different perspectives, the intersection of both of their lives of womanhood and motherhood, and then both of them having to balance their own work and their own lives,” said Monaghan. “They both need each other in order to survive what’s going on outside the home.”
Spector considered his character’s orientation to Aisha to be quite different from Monaghan’s. “With Adam, I wanted to almost have the inverse of Amy and Aisha’s relationship. There seems to be this outward basis for a sort of solidarity around politics and around a level of awareness, but actually, that’s masking something more predatory and more structurally imbalanced,” Spector said.
Getting Lamine to America proves financially challenging, and Aisha’s world starts to collapse when West African mythological supernatural forces Mami Wata and Anansi The Spider begin to haunt her. Diop, who rehearsed with a professor to hone her accent for hours a day, intentionally prepared very little for this aspect of her role: “I did a tiny bit of research on these West African supernatural elements because I wasn’t that familiar with them,” said Diop. ”But I actually didn’t want to do too much because Aisha herself isn’t familiar with it, and so as it’s happening to her, she’s discovering it. I wanted to really exist in the confusion she’s experiencing.”
Aisha is the only character being plagued by Mami Wata, which alienates and isolates her. “Always the challenge with the genre is: how does the monster become a manifestation of what the protagonist is navigating,” Jusu contemplated. “I wanted to portray the alienation that happens when it feels like you’re being spoken to from a spiritual realm and nobody else can see or hear it” she said. “And you don’t know if you’re losing your mind,” she continued. “So it’s a very isolating, alienating experience. And outside of Aisha navigating the obstacles that she’s navigating, she’s also navigating this additional sensibility that she hasn’t been taught to nurture and embrace.”
Aisha does end up telling two people about her interactions with the dark force: Malik (Sinqua Walls), the doorman in Amy and Adam’s building with whom Aisha has a budding romance, and his grandmother (Leslie Uggams), who is quite familiar with the supernatural world. Malik offers Aisha a way out of the darkness she is experiencing, as a mother and domestic worker, by supporting her and showing her lightness. “The ray of light that he gives is constantly reminding us: we can choose to embrace negativity, and it’ll keep us in one place, or we can choose to embrace positivity and continue to go forward,” said Walls of his character. “Because at the end of the day, we’re going to always have to fluctuate between that balance. I think the active choice Malik makes every day to choose light is why he became more light filled in the film.”
Putting together the right filmmaking team for Nanny was essential
As a graduate of NYU film school, Jusu attributes much of her confidence to having learned how to edit as well as write and direct.
Though the film is a singular work, it does stand on the shoulders of many others. 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.
Jusu wanted to be bolstered by colleagues willing to make her ambitious vision come alive. The director’s longtime producing partner, Nikkia Moulterie, was the first on board. “It starts with the script and being honest with her about where things are, and being the voice of reason when it’s maybe not optimal,” said Moulterie of her role.
“Just really being supportive and ushering the project along at its various stages.” Moulterie and Jusu courted Daniela Taplin Lundberg (Stay Gold Features) to come onto the project. “I am so proud of being able to identify filmmakers that I think are really going to make an impact not only on our industry, but the world at large,” Taplin said of Jusu. “I just thought this is a filmmaker that’s going to really make a mark on the industry. And if I can help her do that then that’s the whole reason I produce.”
From his first viewing, Jason Blum, Executive Producer and Founder and CEO of Blumhouse, knew the film was unlike anything he had seen before. “As producers, we’re always looking for original voices and stories. Nikyatu’s film is the type of movie we’re drawn to – it doesn’t fit neatly into one box of genre storytelling – it’s psychologically thrilling, a supernatural horror, mystical and folkloric, but has moments of levity and light. As a father, I can relate to the fear and terror around not being with your children so also in that sense the film moved me. It’s haunting and stayed with me and the Blumhouse team long after we watched it.”