NANNY And Malleable Horror: A Conversation With Sundance Grand Jury Winner Nikyatu Jusu

Incorporating African folklore for a celebration of the beauty and brilliance of the African diaspora.

By Lea Anderson · @leaeanderson · February 17, 2022, 4:07 PM EST
NANNY (2022)

Prior to release of Nikyatu Jusu's debut feature film, Nanny- winner of Sundance's grand jury award in the U.S. dramatic competition category- Jusu invoked the words of Somali-British poet, Warsan Shire to describe the film's preoccupations: "no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark." A horror movie in equal measure as it is a staggering meditation on rebirth and becoming, Jusu recognizes that the so-called American Dream is not a one size fits all endeavor and the reality of immigration most often means that fleeing the mouth of one shark means diving headfirst into the mouth of another.

Nearly a decade in the making, Nanny follows Senegalese teacher and mother, Aisha (played magnificently by Anna Diop), as she sets out to establish a new life in America in preparation for the arrival of her beloved son, Lamine (Jahleel Kamara). To do so, she accepts a nanny position caring for the young daughter of a seemingly respectable Tribeca couple who, as we discover, have no boundaries to speak of. Though the girl takes to Aisha immediately, the parents' increasing demands on her time, attention, energy, and patience draw out a deep rage in Aisha—which is really to say, a deep grief. As is often the case with Black horror, the story depicted in Nanny is at once centuries-old and painfully contemporary, a tension Jusu balances with incredible finesse primarily for the calculated steps she takes to keep the project from falling into the trappings of trauma porn. With its masterful incorporation of African folklore, the film is ultimately a celebration of the beauty and brilliance of the African diaspora.

FANGORIA spoke to writer-director Nikyatu Jusu following the film's premiere at Sundance to discuss her inspirations, the film's folkloric history, the complexities of Black womanhood, and how our perspectives on horror expand the limits of the genre.


How are you feeling this side of the premiere?


NJ: You know what, [audience] responses have really surpassed my expectations. Not gonna lie, it was a little depressing to have just really poured everything into a project and then have to premiere in this digital silo—you know, isolated, and kind of just feeling your way through the dark of both industry reaction and general audience reaction, piecing it together digitally. But what I have been able to piece together has made me feel so seen and so embraced and so loved and so appreciated from most of my target audience, which is women of color, which is black women, first-gen kids. Overwhelmingly my target audience has understood what I'm trying to say, and I've been surprised at how many white women have really embraced the film as well.

That's so assuring to hear because you never know, when people are sort of confronted with the worst parts of themselves.

Exactly. It's been a mixed bag. It's always a mixed bag. I have a handful of white men who really like it, but what I have found is that even in the negative, the most vitriolic- like disproportionately vitriolic- review that I read, he couldn't help but throw some compliments our way because the work kind of speaks for itself. There's no perfect film. I'm humble enough to know what's wrong with my film- it's my first feature- but also I know that as a first feature, it's impressive and enough. And you know, certain people just feel excluded from the narrative, so they're lashing out.


Yeah, when people are used to seeing themselves in everything, it can be a difficult transition for them not to, but also per what you were saying about knowing who your audience is... Of course everything isn't going to resonate for everyone, but, I mean, I grew up on Anansi stories- like reading them and having them read to me are some of my earliest memories- and I've been waiting for someone, knowing it was coming, someone was going to incorporate Anansi into some Black horror film. And the way that you did it was just so perfect.

My god, thank you. And that's such a strong foundation to come from in watching our film because so many people have been put off by the mythology and instead of investigating- maybe, you know, do[ing] a little research- it's like, "this is mumbo jumbo and this didn't make sense." And it's like, okay if you want your hand fully held, you're never going to enjoy my work ever.


I mean, to me, that just smacks of laziness because people love unraveling, like Greek mythology and Roman mythology [etc.]. It's obviously betraying a bias, right? But speaking of the folklore, in previous interviews, you've described Nanny as "a character study with supernatural horror elements." Those elements derive from a number of sources, a couple of them figures from West African folklore- Anansi and Mami Wata- and they're presented as these sort of menacing forces in Aisha's life.

But at the same time, you're very careful not to flatten them into one-dimensional monsters. And I'm sure you're aware, American horror has this historically terrible relationship with African diasporic spiritualities and how they've been represented, so I'm interested in your thoughts and process around sort of conjuring these spirits into this work and into this world? Did you set out with the intention to tell a story about Mami Wata, about Anansi, or did the shape of the narrative sort of lead you to them?


Oh, such a good question. You know what, this is a project that I have chipped away at for around eight-ish years, on and off. And it wasn't like eight consecutive years. It was me getting in my own head, you know, feeling like this was too singular, this was too niche [for the industry]. Nobody would finance this. And then my producing partner, Nikkia Moulterie came along, and we just took to each other, and Nikkia-no matter how many other ideas I had- would nudge me about Nanny. "Just revisit it, we'll figure it out, we'll find the financing." And finally, everything kind of came together once I came together with the story. So it started as a straightforward drama.

My mother has done some domestic work, and I wanna be clear that her whole life has not been domestic work. She's owned a business, she self-published a novel. Like it's never the complete story. Nobody, no woman comes to America, no woman of color comes to America and says, I wanna do domestic work, that's my first choice. That just so happens to be the work, right? It just so happens to be the work that kept her the most employed. So I approached it as a drama at first and then I started my own investigation of folklore and Black diasporic mythology and I was just really taken by the richness of it. Like you hear about Anansi growing up, you hear about Mami Wata growing up depending on if your parents are super in love with their colonizers versus like, super tethered to what they were pre-colonialism.


Anansi is always a chaos agent in folklore. Mami Wata is more of an ambiguous figure. Depending on who you're talking to, they can be a marine spirit that is representative of capitalism and riches and pregnancy and fertility, or they can be perceived as a figure of death and cunning and dark sensuality. I was really interested in those liminal spaces. And I was interested in the ways that Black diasporic people have utilized these spirits and this folklore to survive in different iterations of our disbursement throughout the world. And I was really interested in these two [Anansi and Mami Wata] because I had visuals of what they could look like. The next challenge is, you have this really expensive vision that is not a straightforward, one-room, five-character drama. Now you're incorporating creatures, and you don't wanna embarrass yourself, so you better hope you get a good enough budget or a team that really believes in the project.

The creature judgment is real.

Oh my god, yeah. Like Nikkia, she's an amazing producer. She can look at something, and the numbers just start percolating in her brain, and we both knew this was super ambitious as a first feature in a pandemic with a now 30% contingency for COVID added to your budget to make it through production. The obstacles have been astronomical. But we really got people who who read the script and were like, 'you know what, we're gonna figure this out.' Break + Enter and FuseFX were the two main BFX houses we used.


Speaking of creature creation, how did you create and settle on a visual manifestation? Because there are so many different visual renderings, and they can have different names depending on what part of the world you're in.

Exactly, exactly. So I have access to Jstor because of academia. I'm an assistant professor, and a lot of the material that I sourced for Mami Wata is based in Francophone countries like Haiti [as] La Sirene. In the French-speaking Caribbean, La Sirene was like, I had to search. I started to go down the list of [different iterations of] Yemoja (Yemaya) so I had to figure out which iteration of the name of this marine spirit was going to give me the most resources to pull from. And it was just really interesting vacillating between those different names.


One of the things I really loved about your short, Suicide By Sunlight, was the complexity of its protagonist, and you bring this quality to Aisha. Though they're very different, they share this sort of confrontation with others' perceptions of their honest, unregulated Black femininity as monstrous. I was wondering how you approach these really complicated intersections of monstrosity and Blackness and femininity?


There's this fable that I always think about–I heard it in middle school, and it's stayed with me my whole life. This fable about the centipede with all its legs climbing up this tree. And some monkey is like, how do you keep moving around with all those legs? And the centipede is like, you know, I never thought about it. And as soon as the centipede starts overthinking this, its legs get entangled with each other, and it can no longer walk. And I remember thinking, even in middle school, this is so profound. This kind of feels like my existence.

That's the short answer, but this is my existence. This is the powerful Black and brown women who have been in my life and are currently in my life. I said this in another interview, my best friend is my mom. She just has always been this pillar of strength and nurturing and kindness, so I just have really healthy relationships with women, with women of color [and] with women in general. They're my priority as a creator, and as a community-minded person, women and children are who I gravitate to. So I just have all these instances of these powerful, smart, brilliant women in my life who are navigating these spaces where they don't necessarily have to shrink themselves, but they do have to perpetually be stoic in the face of white mediocrity.


Like your whole life, you do these things that you're told will usher you into the pearly gates of excellence, and you get into these rooms, and you're like, wow, there's a lot of white mediocrity in these rooms, and I have to do a lot of cleaning up. I was hired to be brilliant and excellent and clean up, which is such a sobering realization for so many women in my life. And it's really debilitating because it chips away at everything that you thought your life was about. So that's part of what I was trying to convey in Aisha. And because I navigated it, I tried to pull from specific examples that remind me of the ways that I've navigated this. Like little comments from Amy (Michelle Monaghan), [describing work as] a boys' club. She's trying to connect with [Aisha] on a woman level when in reality, she does not see her as her equal and does not treat her as an equal, you know? It's really manipulative.

Completely. I felt like I knew everything I needed to know about who Amy was when we first met her, when Aisha comes up to the apartment and Amy meets her at the elevator in that monochromatic white outfit.

Charlise Antoinette [Jones], our costume designer! Brilliant. And our costume design team was brilliant, brilliant.


Such an excellent move. But speaking to the original thought, there's this sort of implicit over-identification, right? You're just like me…even though I look down on you and don't see you.

Like, who are you really fooling? I really think a lot of people think that they're fooling you when they try to meet you in that place. We're just not allowed to be smart, brilliant characters in these spaces, and I really wanted to show someone who was hyper-aware of what was going on but had to smile and nod until she couldn't.


Apart from the supernatural elements, a lot of the film's horror is located precisely in these power dynamics, the power dynamics of the white household in general, all of which are incredibly specific and are also completely historically inscribed in the sense that they try to sort of subsume her within their family unit without any kind of acknowledgment or care about her life and her family and what it is that she wants and desires. But they're trying to force her into this perfectly mirrored representation of the dynamics of a plantation household.

Wow. You're going there? I love it.

We've seen this in other Black horror films…. Get Out gestures toward it, Us gestures toward it, His House gestures toward it. But we've never seen it quite like this, primarily because you focus on and directly address the dynamics between adult Black women, the white children that we've historically raised at the expense of our own, and the resentment of white mothers for what it is that we mirror in them. And so I'm interested in what it was like directing those scenes between Aisha, Rose (Rose Decker), and Amy? Because we're in this moment of like, moral panic about white children….


I'll go back to the centipede allegory in terms of, I've just maneuvered so much of this that I observe these things, and they kind of come second nature. I'm an educator, and when I went to NYU grad film, my first job out [was] just popping into different schools and teaching filmmaking. And I taught everywhere from elementary school to middle school, to High School of Art and Design, which is a predominantly white art high school- at the time it was, it may be more diverse now- but I just taught so many different types of students through these filmmaking programs and so many different age ranges and [socioeconomic] classes and different races that I really learned how to engage. I think I started being a teaching artist at like 23, and to have to command the classroom, and a classroom of like twenty Uzbek kids in Bensonhurst, you know, which is super-specific.

And this Black woman may be the only Black woman they've ever learned anything from or been taught by. And so all of those different experiences just really made me see these kids as human beings, you know, whether they saw me as whatever initially. You forge a relationship with these kids, and they're a lot more malleable than adults, so they learn to see you as more than this Black woman who walked in. And whatever [they] believe in [their] home about Black women, [they're] able to shed because [from their perspective] I'm young and I love her, and we love each other. So I was just really always taken by most kids and their ability to unlearn whatever they're learning at home.


But also, bringing up the plantation dynamic is so important because, you know, domestic work was such a prevalent form of work in this country for freed [formally] enslaved Black women. And so those were the first jobs that we were able to get in order to uphold our households. Like our men couldn't necessarily get jobs, but we were able to be in white people's houses, cleaning and cooking and doing extensions of what we were doing on the plantation. And so that's the same for Black and brown immigrant women when they come to this country. That is the first job, the most accessible job for these women.

When I initially watched the film, the first thing that jumped to my mind was Harriet Jacob's Incidents In The Life of a Slave Girl and how, centuries apart, worlds apart, the stories are so parallel. It's so in conversation with the broader tradition of Black women's engagement with horror. Like I fully think about Incidents In The Life of a Slave Girl as a horror story, full stop.


You're touching on something that is really interesting, 'cause so many of these white male critics, their whole analysis is, "this wasn't horror, and this is how I'm gonna prove it was not horror." And I'm like, that's relative, you know. Like The Joker is a horror film to me [but] it's categorized on Wikipedia as a crime/drama. White male violence is horrific to me, and the everyday vulnerability of being a Black woman in a white supremacist, patriarchal world is scary to me. So yeah, the idea of horror needs to become more malleable in terms of [how] we define it.