How Nanny tapped Western African folktales, South Korean cinema, and the director's mother to create a fresh horror thriller

Anna Diop and Nikyatu Jusu attend 2021 AFI Fest - Nanny Special Screening at TCL Chinese Theatre
Anna Diop and Nikyatu Jusu attend 2021 AFI Fest - Nanny Special Screening at TCL Chinese Theatre

Anna Diop (left) and Nikyatu Jusu at a screening of Nanny

At last January’s Sundance Film Festival, Nikyatu Jusu was revealed as an exciting new voice in American cinema. Her Grand Jury Prize-winning film Nanny, a bold and confident first feature, tells the story of Aisha (Anna Diop), an undocumented immigrant in New York City who works as a nanny for privileged couple Amy and Adam (Michelle Monaghan and Morgan Spector). She pines for the son she left behind in Senegal, and that hurt manifests itself as something sinister that she can’t identify—until she feels it invading her reality.

To draw a psychological portrait grounded in memories of her real-life immigrant mother, Jusu turned to horror and genre filmmaking elements. As she reveals to The A.V. Club, she also drew on Western African folktales and mystical creatures to craft this unique narrative’s stunning visuals. As she prepares for Nanny’s theatrical release November 23 and Amazon Prime Video streaming release December 16, Jusu opens up about her cinematic inspirations, the type of films she wants to make, and why it’s important to end a story—even a horrific one!—on an ultimately hopeful note.

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Nanny - Official Trailer | Prime Video

The A. V. Club: Nanny is a psychological portrait of an immigrant woman dealing with a sense of loss for leaving her child back home, but you chose to filter that through horror and folktales. Tell us about that choice.

Nikyatu Jusu: I like the way you describe it. Your description feels accurate. A lot of people are bumping up against this as just outright horror. Having watched different types of horror from around the world, you have full horror, elevated horror, body horror, different types. But as someone who has traveled using cinema intellectually, the filmmakers I admire [are] Ousmane Sembène, Michael Haneke, Lynne Ramsay, Park Chan-Wook, Bong Joon-ho, Andrea Arnold, Jennifer Kent. The list is long, but what you’ll notice is they’re all not American and I think that they get more freedom to be cross-genre.

Nanny definitely is a cross-genre film. I just wanted to make this thing that feels like my story. I’m first-gen American, born to Sierra Leonean parents in Atlanta, Georgia. So I’m truly Sierra Leonean-American and navigating that in between—being first-gen American, not African enough, not Black American enough. It’s this liminal space. And so I think that’s the reason why I create work that can’t easily be identified. But also, my entry point into storytelling was to read voraciously: Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler, Zora Neale Hurston. People who were creating worlds that were very cross-genre as well. The origin [of Nanny] is very loosely based on my mother’s story. She’s brilliant and highly educated. She self-published two novels, and yet the work that she had to do to make a living and to bring money into the household was often domestic work and other forms of labor. So as a child, it was something that I was always worried about: how she was being treated when she left the house, how was she being treated in these strangers’ households? That was the springboard. Then I knew that I wanted to utilize the West African storytelling elements and West African figures of resistance and honestly Anansi the Spider and Mami Wata are two very prevalent forms of rebellion in our storytelling. So all of these different pieces came together in that way.

AVC: I’m an immigrant from Sudan. So I was really moved by this film because I am also haunted by dreams of the old country, by the people I left behind. Then you wake up and you’re not there. I thought you visualized that so well.

NJ: I almost got emotional because you’re reminding me I haven’t even spoken to my mom all day. You’re reminding me that growing up as a first-gen American, you see the nostalgia of your parents. You see the grief of leaving, the good and the bad, but that’s home, that’s their origin. And the ways that they have to navigate America as Black immigrants ... I don’t think we get a lot of stories around that intersection of being an immigrant and being Black and then learning what that means in America because now nobody cares where you are from. You’re Black. Then when you open your mouth, you’re Black with an accent. It’s a blanket that I definitely wanted to see reflected because we don’t really see that in the mainstream. But also, we’re not in these silos, I grew up with Liberian uncles and aunts, Ghananian, Nigerian, Jamaican, and Trinidadian. The African diaspora was always in my house: Black Americans interacting with my family and me obviously, growing up as a Black American. I don’t see a lot of content that shows the ways that we interact in this country. But yeah, that nostalgia is palpable for a child being raised to immigrant parents. Whether you overhear conversations or you smell the food or you miss the food when you travel. Like even now, doing this rollout for the film, I get very culturally homesick even though I’ve been gone since college and I go back and forth. I yearn for my food. I literally feel a heart-shaped emptiness when I can’t be around my mom or smell the scent of our food or see her and her gowns around the house or hear the language being spoken over the phone. I see it as a blessing to have this richness and I wanted to reflect that in this film.

AVC: There’s a lot of water in this film. Can you talk about water as a motif, where it came from and what it means?

NJ: Toni Morrison has a quote that says water has perfect memory. A lot of my work is about memory, about grief, about what people have left behind. But as you know, our African diasporic history is really built around water and the ways that we have either been forcibly removed from our origin lands during enslavement or the ways that we have to travel these long distances over bodies of water to get back home. Even now, as we’re navigating climate disaster and flooding is rampant in different countries that are ironically disproportionately not contributing to climate disaster, but are disproportionately affected by it. Water is powerful. It’s a source of destruction. A source of birth and rebirth. There’s another quote that says, “Never turn your back on a body of water” because of that power. That destruction can rip everything apart in a matter of seconds. So water just felt like a really palpable thematic element to tell Aisha’s story for all of the reasons that I mentioned.

AVC: Can you talk about working with Anna Diop and rafting this performance? It’s one of the year’s best.

NJ: I agree but I’m biased. I was so happy that she got the Gotham Award nomination, which is a big one. She brought so much to the role. I’m very much an actor’s director and I take casting seriously. For me, it’s not a matter of pairing this A-list actor with this A-list actor. It’s about authenticity and craft. Anna is not only gorgeous, but she is humble and was willing to go through the process of auditioning. A lot of people at her level, on a mainstream show like Titans, would say “offer only” which means they’re not going to audition. I don’t work like that. I need to see your ability on the screen and I need to do chemistry casting. Once I chose Anna, she was willing to audition with the Maliks that we were auditioning and then audition with the Amys and Adams. Chemistry is a lost art in this industry. I literally will watch two actors press their lips together and it looks like they’re counting down the seconds, the chemistry of a wet blanket. [Laughs] I was just really excited to cast someone who was willing to dig into the process with me. She’s been a dream to work with. And I want to work with her for the rest of my career.

Anna Diop and Sinqua Walls in Nanny
Anna Diop and Sinqua Walls in Nanny

Sinqua Walls as Malik and Anna Diop as Aisha in Nanny

AVC: There seems to be this tradition in horror of stories centered around mothers. In making Nanny, did you look into that tradition or did you forge your own way? And what did you want to say about mothers?

NJ:. As a woman who has navigated her own fractured relationships with motherhood—I don’t have children—I pull from my love for my mother. Whether you’re queer or straight when you are a cis woman, at some point people are wondering why you are childless. There’s a stigma in every society for childless women, and yet a lot of us still have to navigate a capitalistic paradigm, we still have to participate in labor and rise up the ladder and oftentimes, especially for Black women, be the breadwinner of the household. And so I’m always interested in horror films like The Babadook, Jennifer Kent’s film that deals with a single mother who’s navigating grief. I think motherhood is rife with horror elements inherently in the system, not only what having a child does to your body physically, but also the ways that society claims to love mothers but does not support mothers.

AVC: In general going forward, what kind of stories are you interested in telling?

NJ: This industry has a terrible habit of saying, “Here’s this new voice! How can we get her to direct Little Mermaid part 10?” Why are you not financing my original stories? This is what I’m navigating now. Luckily, my other original story has landed with Monkeypaw. I’m also in contention for remakes which are inherently par for the course. This industry does not like to take too many chances with new material, especially from historically marginalized filmmakers like myself. It’s a risk-averse industry. So the reality is that at some point in a filmmaker’s career, no matter how original their storytelling is, their bread and butter may be a remake of something. But I’m lucky in the sense that the remakes that I have attached myself to thus far feel like they are part of a canon of work that I want to create that puts Black women firmly at the center in the horror genre, nuanced Black women protagonists with breadth and depth. We’re not just warriors. We’re not just supporting characters, but have a full narrative, like the women that I love and that I know.

AVC: This story is tragic yet there’s a hopeful note that shines throughout. Can you talk about why it was important to show that?

NJ: I’m glad that you got that because my intention is for it to be imbued with hope. Even [when] there’s a lot of darkness in it. Some people didn’t get that and I think that people who often didn’t catch the hopefulness see the world in a way that is very black or white. They have trouble with a gray area in between. It’s important also for me to portray Black interiority in a way that doesn’t feel like relentless trauma because we have enough of that in reality. I’m always going to want to juxtapose the darkness with the light. I look to the South Korean cinema for reference. I love the ways that Bong Joon-ho will have a very dark film but with elements of dark comedy and with optimism as an undercurrent. Also Park Chan-Wook. The Wailing [by Na Hong-jin]. I’ve never seen essentially a zombie film with so much optimism but also so much darkness. South Korean culture has a lot of similarities with Western African culture, which is probably why I have an affinity for their work. Those of us who have histories of violence enacted on us, we don’t have the luxury of making something that is relentless trauma. I have a responsibility even in the darker genres to not assault my audience and my Black characters in that way.

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