‘Nanny’: A movie with ‘hard lessons’ about Blackness, Hollywood
“How do you use your anger?”
This powerful question, which is both reminder and affirmation, comes from Nikyatu Jusu’s feature debut, Nanny, which hits theaters November 23 and airs December 16 on Prime Video. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, the film follows Aisha (Anna Diop), an undocumented Senegalese woman who works as a nanny for a wealthy white family in hopes of raising their son – whom they leave behind in their home country had to – bring to New York.
As well as being tasked with childcare, Aisha is tasked with managing a series of microaggressions from Amy, the ever-vigilant, controlling mother and father of her charge Adam, a photojournalist preoccupied with capturing images of racialized people who are responsible for… fight for liberation. Between Adam’s fetishistic gaze and Amy’s misguided projections of gender solidarity, the pair underscores the unacknowledged work all too often required of black women.
As in her acclaimed 2019 short Suicide by Sunlight, Jusu demonstrates an intuitive understanding of the violence of words, images and actions – and why the humiliations of gendered anti-Blackness lend themselves so easily to horror films.
Ahead of the premiere of “Nanny’s” on TIFF earlier this year, The Times spoke to Jusu about crafting stories from ephemeral stories, the kaleidoscopic nature of blackness, and the characters that have unmistakably influenced the director’s desire to create new worlds.
I was struck by the way you witness Aisha’s experience without interfering with her inner workings. I am thinking, for example, of your use of images of Aisha captured by surveillance cameras – there is violence in these acts of image making, but your use does not compromise her autonomy as a character. How did you find harmony between these realities?
For me it’s very organic in terms of how I move through the world in my body and how I see the world. I’m lucky in the sense that I can be the honest filmmaker I am and still be supported. That is rare. I couldn’t imagine it any other way – it’s the only way I can do it. I’m grateful that I can stay true to myself and progress in my work, although I probably would have progressed faster if I hadn’t been who I am.
There is a very African saying about a centipede and a monkey; The monkey asks the centipede, “How do you move around on all those legs?” and the centipede replies, “I never thought about it.” After being asked this question, the centipede suddenly starts tripping over its own legs. I am constantly navigating and hyper-aware of my process as opposed to that process inherently and naturally occurring.
As someone of direct Sierra Leonean ancestry, you are in a unique position as you are both West African and Black American. I wonder how you conveyed the understanding that comes from that experience to your film?
With “Nanny” and most of my work, one of my goals is to explore the black diaspora – allowing Africans of different nations to collide, intersect and merge with Black Americans. Because that’s the reality I’ve experienced myself. I grew up in a household that was very wealthy in relation to its lifespan in the Black diaspora. I had aunts and uncles from Trinidad, Ghana, Liberia and Philly. It was a confluence of blackness. We’re a huge crowd of people and I don’t see that often [that] reflected in the media.
When Africans come here, they learn a hard lesson about blackness. No one cares to know about your tribe, region, or nation. I span these worlds, the divide between African and Black American history. Showing how we share culture and tradition is a goal for me. It’s not just about how we’re oppressed – blackness can often be flattened in this way – although of course it’s important to talk about it. It’s something I constantly think about, what it means to be who I am here.
The way you deal with spook, violence and grief in your film is so impressive, especially since you also claim that a capacity for joy remains. There’s a warmth that ‘Nanny’ brings to the moments of intimacy and love that feels very much lived – it’s a style of filmmaking that not only shapes Aisha’s life on screen, but also, like us as black audiences, especially black women and women who are affected by film. It is an act of diligence as a writer and director to work so consciously.
In recent interviews, Jordan Peele has spoken of the disproportionate burden on black directors working in horror. Those of us who understand the genre’s conventions know that there must be conflict, there must be trauma, and often both things are unrelenting. Because my protagonist is a black woman, and I know how black women are conveyed in films – the lack of care given to them – it’s important to me to have that balance of light and dark.
This balancing act or juxtaposition, which we most often see outside of the American film canon, gives me permission to make my work more than just one thing. Directors like Park Chan-wook, Lynne Ramsay, Ousmane Sembène and Safi Faye – their work confirms this. A lot of people in this industry don’t watch movies made outside of the American paradigm, and that was a tough lesson for me, especially when I come from both an academic and an artistic background. I work in this industry now and have meetings with executives who are very well paid Not to see foreign cinema.
By the end of your film, very western notions of time and space are destroyed or collapsed. It is a perturbation that points to the potential for decolonization of the genre as well as the non-linear sphere of the ancestors. I think there is a way that black women and black non-binary people make and preserve art that honors what came before. It’s a way of approaching art with our ancestors in hand.
Saidiya Hartman and Toni Morrison are both people who have allowed me to do this in this way. They both stand out to me as women who [were and] explore what it means to articulate time and timelessness in a medium, what it means to traverse past, present and future simultaneously. That’s an understanding that’s prevalent in our oral tradition, in my parents’ tribal traditions—at least in pre-colonialism. We must look for permits like this to tell stories in the intuitive way that we have been removed from in our current culture and society; it is considered confusing or too abstract.
In most of the interviews I’ve done in this industry, mostly with white men, I can say that as a cinephile, they are blown away by the way I’ve executed the film. I knew that in filmmaking, like everything else I’ve done in my life, I had to do it excellently or it would be picked apart by people who wanted it. So these people I speak to can say the lighting is great or the cinematography is great – basically anything that can be attributed to something outside of myself. But in terms of these elements that you and I are talking about, they don’t understand.
I look at people like Ousmane Sembène when I think of timelessness. As [his film] “Black Girl” [showed] us a woman who lives in shards of memory. These fragments of memories are a big deal in my work; It is important to me to make peace with this.
My instinct is to place you in that canon, alongside authors like Morrison and films like Kasi Lemmons’ Eve’s Bayou and Sembène’s Black Girl. I’m not saying this to minimize your activity as a filmmaker or to reduce your work to identity markers, but to speak to art that works with these notions of space and time as a kind of memory and mourning work.
You also make me think of Yaa Gyasi [novel] “Homegoing” and how much my entry into storytelling was because I was a voracious reader growing up. I grew up with a self-published mother, and in that space novels came and went all the time. I think there’s more freedom in novel form to play with these things that we’re talking about, so I’m always trying to figure out how to make a novel in a movie.
How do you see the character of Aisha’s spectral self in the film? I think of her self-haunting in relation to the West African myth – those moments when it felt like reality was being taken over by something else.
The character of Mami Wata is complicated. In the American context, “Nanny” is one of the few films that took Mami Wata live-action – it takes a budget to do it the way you want it. I’m a researcher, by mistake, and JSTOR has been an invaluable resource because it’s difficult to find information on these things that has been largely translated and passed on orally. I wanted to embed Mami Wata in the Sierra Leonean tradition as much as possible, because at the end of the day, that’s my lineage. But the available knowledge through [these means] can be sparse, so I had to piece together many characters – water creatures – from other cultures, like La Sirene from Haiti or Yemọja from the Yoruba.
A lot of what I learned from these different iterations of Mami Wata was the importance of reflective surfaces. This became a motif that allowed us to understand how Aisha changed throughout the film. Both Anansi and Mami Wata are characters who compel them to step into their power. In this way I ascribe to the paradigms that the audience understands as structure, but I also weave in those entities that lie outside of it.
Drawing from diverse sources to make up for missing or inaccessible stories is something I think very highly of the Black Diaspora experience. This process is a kind of site design.
Sometimes you have to take liberties with the archives. Hartman is someone who taught me to be a storyteller even when we reflect truthful stories because we have lost so much and been denied so much. By the very nature of surviving and existing in these systems that have burned down all our archives, we are storytellers.
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-11-14/nikyatu-jusu-nanny-amazon-prime-video-anna-diop ‘Nanny’: A movie with ‘hard lessons’ about Blackness, Hollywood