NANNY is the story that delivers what the title promises and a whole lot more. It is the story of Aisha, a Senegalese immigrant, who left her child behind at home as she tries to start a new life for them both in New York City.
The film is written and directed by Nikyatu Jusu. It stars Anna Diop (Us, Titans) as Aisha, Sinqua Walls (Shark Night, Teen Wolf) as Malik, Michelle Monaghan (Mission Impossible III, True Detective) as Amy, Morgan Spector (Boardwalk Empire, The Mist) as Adam, Rose Decker (Mare of Eastown) as Rose and Leslie Uggams (Deadpool, The Leslie Uggams Show) as Kathleen. The film is produced by Nikkia Moulterie (Random Acts of Flyness, One Bad Choice). The cinematography is by Rina Yang, who shot Becoming, a documentary about the life of Michelle Obama. The lovely costume design was provided by Charlese Antoinette Jones.
The film is very smart about showing exactly how domestic workers, especially immigrants, are actually treated in supposedly liberal homes. It shows the subtle and not-so-subtle power games that rich, white women and men play when they think they have power over their employees. I have experienced this myself as a personal assistant. They love you and your work right up until the moment when they don’t get what they want or you ask for your due. That’s the moment when you find out that everything you do is wrong. They will start to monitor you and begin to nitpick everything that you do to show you who has the power or deny your worth. If you really want to know what it is like to be a domestic worker, especially a nanny, but also what it’s like for maids and assistants, watch NANNY. In this, the horror of the film is very realistic. Many times people will consider horror to only be about the supernatural or a killer running amok but the horror comes in many forms, not the least of which is a person exploiting you as much as they can.
NANNY points out that rich people who live on the Upper West Side (or anywhere else) will plead poverty because paying you when you want to be paid or need to be paid is inconvenient for them. They will use guilt and when that doesn’t work, they will switch to threats and verbal abuse. The verbal abuse is more subtle than what people normally consider abuse, but you’ll see their microaggressions start from the very beginning, even while they are praising you. In the film, Aisha watches the dysfunctional family slowly fall to pieces with the resentful wife and mother sniping at the distant and possibly unfaithful husband and the child in obvious need of attention and kindness.
Anna Diop as Aisha plays the quiet and thoughtful woman wonderfully. She is silent when most people are verbose. You can see her assessment and judgment in the looks she gives to the members of the family and while she doesn’t say much in return, it’s not because she doesn’t know what’s going on. She does but she chooses not to speak until she feels it is necessary. Michelle Monaghan plays a brittle and disappointed woman very well. She never plays Amy as a caricature of this kind of woman. You can occasionally see her ruefulness about her own behavior but that never stops her from taking her frustrations with her life, her work, her choices, and her husband out on her nanny and child. Sinqua Walls as Malik has a wonderful charisma that makes you trust him even as Aisha first refuses to. He has to earn her trust and when he realizes that, he sets out to do just that. His warmth as the character is a relief for Aisha and the audience from some of the cruelty of the other characters. He’s a good guy and Walls plays the character perfectly.
One thing that I have to mention about NANNY is that the writer/director Nikyatu Jusu has created a graceful and bewitching film that gives Black immigrants respect. Too often Black people’s stories on screen are stories of criminals and terror. While this is a horror movie, there is also room for that warmth and kindness between the members of the immigrant West African diaspora in New York. There is a gentleness and sweetness between Aisha and Malik that isn’t around enough in films with Black characters. I feel it is important to show such characters as regular, dignified human beings who are capable of love and attachment as well, and I have to laud Jusu for giving this kind of representation to her people but also to cinema in general. Rina Young does an excellent job of lighting the film, especially lighting the skin of the Black actors. It really makes a difference and shows the beauty of Black actors in the proper way.
There’s another part of the story. When Aisha is alone, she starts seeing and hearing things that she can’t explain. The horror grows out of her loneliness in New York and her yearning for her child. The film brings two figures out of West African folklore into the story: Mama Wata, a water spirit and goddess, and Anansi the Spider, a god of knowledge whose stories and worship has existed for centuries. If you are familiar with the series American Gods, you might have seen a version of Anansi, or as American Gods called him Mr. Nancy, on that show portrayed by Orlando Jones. Seeing and hearing things is very frightening and Aisha seeks help from one of Malik’s relatives, Kathleen. Fear often comes from the unknown and Aisha doesn’t understand why she’s being contacted by these spirits. That’s why I say it is horror, just a horror story told in a different way. If this was a movie from The Conjuring series or any other type of film with ghosts in it, people wouldn’t question its status as horror. I really hope that people don’t do that because NANNY is wonderfully affecting, emotional, and passionate storytelling that is also scary.
NANNY is a truly special first feature film by a gifted writer and director Nikyatu Jusu who has assembled a first-class horror film with so many artful touches. It balances the horror and beauty so well. Make no mistake, it contains truly terrifying horror and will gut-punch you. It has proved once again, that horror films can do both.
NANNY had its World Premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.