When she first read the script for Nikyatu Jusu’s haunting genre drama “Nanny,” Anna Diop was shocked to find so many parallels to her mother’s story.
“The script brought back so many memories of my own mother’s experience when she immigrated to the States from Senegal,” Diop said during a recent interview with IndieWire. “I watched her learn how to survive in America. She started braiding hair and she did that out of our house for a couple years and then she opened up a daycare out of our house for the neighborhood kids and families. And then she went into nanny work and started working in people’s homes. It brought back a lot of those emotions of watching my mother really put her ego aside to make do and to survive. So it felt deeply personal to me.”
In the film — which won Sundance’s highest honor, the Grand Jury Prize, back in January — Diop plays Aisha, a young mother recently arrived to New York City from Senegal. When she finds work as a nanny for a wealthy white couple, she must look after a girl the same age as her own son, who remains back home. Atmospheric and razor-sharp, a menacing chill hangs in the air of her austere surroundings.
Diop anchors Aisha with a warm confidence as she navigates her new surroundings, both inside the impeccably designed Manhattan apartment and on the hot Harlem streets. Michelle Monaghan and Morgan Spector deliver wonderfully chilling performances as the absent white parents, but they are undoubtedly secondary to Aisha’s journey.
“That’s not something people are used to seeing. And in many ways I think it gently forces people to truly have empathy for this woman, because the expectation is what it always is, which is not to focus on her, but to really turn the gaze towards the white bodies and white individuals,” Diop said. “I’ve never or rarely have seen a film especially that makes it into the landscape that we’re now entering that is unapologetically, undeniably focused on a Black immigrant woman. “
As Aisha’s homesickness grows, she begins to have visions inspired by African folklore. She sees Anansi the Spider climbing up the walls and is visited by Mami Wata, a water spirit and siren who appears to her as a mermaid. Rather than taking them as haunting visions, Diop saw these images as guiding totems for Aisha.
“They’re symbols of resistance and of rebellion, and they’re chaos agents,” said Diop. “In breaking down the script and charting Aisha’s arc and her emotional journey, when she starts to become confronted with them, when they start imbuing her, we find that it manifests in her behavior and that she becomes less apologetic and more bold and a bit more savvy. … [Jusu] wanted to incorporate these aspects of African folklore because we don’t see that much in cinema, but also because it helps serve this story of a woman [who] needs to learn how to survive, to be strong, and to stand up for herself.”
While it would be easy to explain the film’s more ethereal elements as being symbolic of Aisha’s fragile mental state, Jusu and Diop never intended to say anything directly about mental illness. Rather, her visions are a perfectly justifiable response to the danger and suffering she’s experiencing.
“I made the choice then that Aisha did not have a history of any kind of mental illness,” said Diop. “Instead, she was experiencing things that were really causing her to question the fragility of her mental state. She’s chalking it up to exhaustion and missing her son and being in an environment that’s new disorienting. And she does that until she can’t do that anymore.”
“Nanny” was acquired by horror studio Blumhouse (along with streaming giant Amazon) after the film’s debut, but it isn’t a traditional horror film in any sense of the genre. Its tone is moody and provocative, with an eerie score and a few jump scares keeping the viewer on their toes. It’s much closer in lineage to Ousmane Sembene’s seminal 1966 film “Black Girl” than Jordan Peele’s “Get Out.” Funnily enough, “Nanny” has already earned comparisons to the French-Senegalese film, which recently tied with “Get Out” to land the last spot on Sight and Sound’s Greatest Films of All Time Critic’s Poll.
“That was the first film I saw with that kind of tension that was telling stories that I could deeply relate to,” said Diop. “And a lot of people are comparing those two films and comparing Jordan to Nikyatu. And that happens when Black artists make anything. There’s always a comparison with one another. And I’m OK with that because, essentially, I think we’re evolving the genre and we’re ascending in the genre and I’m just really honored to be a part of that ascension.”
“Nanny” is now in select theaters, with a streaming release to follow on Amazon Prime Video on Friday, December 16.