“African Spirituality Has a History of Being Demonized in Cinema”: Nikyatu Jusu on Nanny
West African mythology is an integral facet of Nikyatu Jusu’s filmmaking. Whether in her directorial stint on an episode of The CW’s Two Sentence Horror Stories or the melanated day-walking vampires in her short film (and 2019 festival circuit hit) Suicide by Sunlight, the Sierra Leonean-American writer/director has made it her mission to introduce American audiences to the folklore of her heritage. If she also manages to revamp tired (and overly Eurocentric) monster tropes while she’s at it, then so be it. It’s fitting, then, that Jusu’s feature debut Nanny manages to do a little bit of both.
When a young Senegalese woman named Aisha (Anna Diop) is hired to take care of a wealthy Manhattan family’s six-year-old daughter Rose (Rose Decker), she’s delighted to have landed a well-paying gig. She desperately needs to save the majority of her under the table wages in order to fulfill her dream of flying her son over from Senegal to join her in Harlem. Unfortunately for Aisha, the job’s idyllic promise begins to fade quickly—wages go unaccounted for, she’s forbidden from cooking the food of her culture and she begins to experience terrifying visions of bizarre creatures stalking her. It becomes evident that she’s being targeted by a sinister presence, and Aisha must deduce whether it’s a product of her new job, her new surroundings or something much, much worse.
The creatures Aisha encounters are deeply rooted in West African lore—the siren deity Mami Wata and the trickster spider Anansi—yet it’s unclear whether they are ultimately familiar allies or feared assailants. Either way, their presence in Aisha’s hallucinations suggest that her past life in Senegal contains unfinished business, and it’s up to her to put the pieces together before it’s too late to reckon with it.
Jusu spoke with Filmmaker on a Zoom call ahead of the film’s Sundance premiere, a conversation which encompasses the writer/director’s thoughts on Guillermo del Toro, domestic work in America and the ancestral presence she felt on the Nanny’s set.
Filmmaker: When did you first begin developing Nanny, and what was the process from initial idea to fully-realized feature?
Jusu: This project has been brewing for the past eight-ish years—I’ve been saying eight-ish, but it might be a little more. I started and stopped, and this wasn’t even my first feature concept, just the first one that gained enough traction for us to actually get financing and go into production. I met my producer, Nikkia Moulterie, through another friend who went to NYU grad film at the time, and I think the magic bullet I had been missing was a producer truly down to collaborate on the vision, find the financing and be in the trenches with me. So, once I found Nikkia I feel like things took off, and she really supported me in finishing the story. We gained tremendous traction when we started getting into these labs in the past three-ish years, and the Sundance Screenwriters Lab was pivotal. Then I got into the Sundance Directors Lab for this same project, then we got into the Sundance Producers Lab. So it truly became a project that Sundance was like, “We support every facet of this production.” We secured financing through Stay Gold, Topic [Studios], and Linlay Productions. And this industry really is about the phrase “hurry up and wait,” because for so long this thing was being chipped away at and once we gained traction, it was a whirlwind. We got the financing last year, shot in July, wrapped in August and went right into the edit. We submitted a work in progress to Sundance and turned in the final cut last Friday, so we just finished the film a few days ago. I literally haven’t had a chance to breathe.
Filmmaker: What I find incredibly striking about the film are the obvious allusions to Ousmane Sembène’s 1966 film Black Girl—the Senegalese nationality of the protagonist, the stark presence of West African masks in the employer’s home, the significance of water and bathrooms. Yet Nanny is much more focused on Aisha finding empowerment and agency through this alienating scenario as opposed to the comparatively bleak outcome of Black Girl. What felt important about transforming this iconic film into something that continues to ring true about the isolation of domestic work within the West African diaspora?
Jusu: What’s funny is that Ousmane Sembène is one of my many influences, and people are going to think I’m making this up, but I really didn’t realize the parallel. I literally didn’t realize until my assistant on set—whose name is also Aisha—came up to me and showed me a shot we took of Anna looking up at the sky alongside a still from Black Girl, and I was like, “Oh my god, it looks exactly like this frame.” Of course, Ousmane is a major influence and Black Girl was something I remember seeing in undergrad and was like, “I need to consume more Sub-Saharan African films.” But yeah, the parallels are really interesting because—and I’m going to get really spiritual on you—I have felt like there’s been an ancestral presence with this film. Like, the fact that we cobbled together this financing and then got through production at the peak of the pandemic—we didn’t have a positive COVID case until the second to last day of filming—and finished and made it through. I do feel like there is some bigger presence that is working through me, for a lot of my filmmaking work, and I think this is a testament to that. So, I didn’t want a dark ending for this reimagining of Black Girl—which is not a literal reimagining, I want to make that clear, it’s just highly influenced [the film].
My mom did a lot of domestic work growing up, but she was also so many other things. She’s a Sierra Leonean woman who owned a business and who self-published a book. I grew up with really brilliant parents—which is something I’m very lucky to be able to say—who I always thought were the smartest people in the world. Growing up in this African microcosm in the South, born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, I saw the sacrifices my mom had to make. So, I was always thinking about this protagonist who is an African woman in America trying to secure this elusive “American dream.” Then I went to New York for NYU grad film and literally saw Black and brown women pushing white children in strollers around Tisch. It was this visual manifestation of themes and ideas I’d been thinking about, but I didn’t want to tell the story through a straightforward drama. I wanted to utilize African folklore, so I said in the casting process that whomever was cast as the lead, I was going to lean into whatever her culture was. So whether I casted a Nigerian actress or a Black South African actress, I was going to lean into the nuances of that culture with the food, the fabric and the texture.
I had had my eyes on Anna Diop for not too long, but it was super superficial. I saw her face for the first time and I was like, “This woman’s face is really a sight to behold.” Thankfully she killed her audition, and she is truly Senegalese-American—she came to the U.S. when she was six—so once I cast her I was like, “Okay, we’re leaning into Senegal.” Domestic work in America, and in most countries, is mostly inhabited by Black and brown women. It’s one of the oldest occupations of Black women in America since their enslavement in this country. So, I think about things like how with the January 6 insurrection, we rarely talked about the domestic staff that were probably petrified. The immigrant women and the Black and brown men and women in the White House who show up to clean and care for these people, but are mostly invisible in these narratives. After seeing this film, I hope people really see the people who are made invisible but are really keeping us alive as a nation.
Filmmaker: Of course, Nanny also elevates things by incorporating fantastical elements. I was particularly captivated by the Mami Wata, and I’d love to know how you brought this creature to life in your script and then on screen?
Jusu: I wish I had, like, 20 million dollars more to flex with Mami Wata the way I really wanted to. I will say that we had some amazing collaborators and department heads on this film, but it’s tricky when you’re one of the first to introduce folklore in live-action [movies], especially in America. I knew for a fact I wanted her to be unapologetically Black. I wanted her hair to be intricately braided as opposed to this halo of wet hair, and I didn’t want the coloration of the scaling to be a stereotypical green—I wanted it to be darker and more in-line with her melanated brown skin. Those were some of the things we thought about, and I just love creature creation. Guillermo del Toro is such a genius, he really inspires me. I also love leaning into nature, so I did a deep dive—forgive the pun—into underwater creatures who are at depths that we haven’t even touched. They have this internal luminescence that emanates out of their body; they literally have an external light. So, when it came to Mami Wata, I was thinking about all of that stuff. I also layered the sounds of orcas, whales and dolphins into the soundscape to think about what a deep sea spirit like Mami Wata might sound like.
Filmmaker: I was also struck by how unsettled I was by the Mami Wata’s creature design versus what it’s said to represent in the film: “Mami Wata are figures of survival and resistance for oppressed people. They challenge the dominant order, subverting it through chaos, anarchy, creative energy. They refuse to be ruled—by the human or by the divine.” I love this description, because it really proves the film’s point about how wielding power can be incredibly scary, but is so necessary in order to challenge the inequality of the current social order.
Jusu: African spirituality has a history of being demonized in cinema, and I do think we are in a new place and time where people are revisiting African spirituality and theology and really taking a closer look at what it means to have villainized it throughout history due to imperialism and colonization. With Mami Wata and Anansi, I really wanted to start to talk about what it means in America for people to be more concerned with property damage than the tangible lives of Black and brown people. What does it mean when people fixate on the violence perpetrated against intangible objects versus the violence perpetrated against human beings? There are so many resistances we’ve had throughout history—slave rebellions, colonial rebellions—led by indigenous women and African women, which we don’t get to learn about in a traditional school climate. And all this pushback against race talk in schools and being candid about the history of this nation is not for no reason. People don’t want us to know about the power we wielded and the fact that we fought violence with violence. So, I’m curious about the ways that we utilize these deities and spiritual presences to arm ourselves with the tools that we need to be brave and fight back. I’m at this intersection of being very American, but also very African. I see the tension between Black immigrants and Black Americans, and I understand why it exists. But I also know that we have a lot more in common in terms of our rebellions and the ways that we fought against the oppressors, so I’m always curious about the tools that we’ve utilized to fight oppression and the ways that we moved away from that into respectability politics.
Filmmaker: Did you grow up hearing about Anansi and Mami Wata and other West African folk tales?
Jusu: Trickster figures are prevalent in so many cultures, and it’s a figure that I’ve always been really enamored by in a weird way. But did I grow up hearing about Anansi? No. Even though my parents are both Sierra Leonean, I think a lot of African immigrants who come to America for education or opportunity—and who aren’t refugees or running away from war—tend to have been more privileged back in Africa and also tend to be more indoctrinated by their colonizers. Like, they really believe the British have this masterful way of organizing Christianity—you know, all these really idealistic ideas about their colonizer. So, I didn’t grow up in a household that really leaned into West African folklore, but sought it out for myself because I was curious. And I will say that my dad, to some degree, was a little more conflicted about his feelings around the British colonizers versus his African traditions, and he was the rebellious spirit who also made me rebellious.
I did initiate my own research, which really started for me in college in terms of wanting to know about Sierra Leone pre-colonialism. I’m lucky to know my tribal affiliation with both of my parents—Mandingo, Susu, Temne, Sherbo. And knowledge around the oral traditions that we had is really important to me. Of course, Anansi is probably the most famous figure in all of this oral tradition. But I love that he’s a chaos agent. He will say, in an act of rebellion, “We need to burn the ship down. If you burn down in the process, so be it.” I find that compelling because we’ve died so many deaths trying to pretend like we are okay with having to actually proclaim Black Lives Matter—you shouldn’t have to say that your life matters out loud, you shouldn’t have to convince yourself that your life matters, you shouldn’t have to convince others that your life matters. So I’m interested in these figures that really just put their middle finger up to these systems and say, “Whoever dies in the process is a consequence of the violence that has been inflicted on us.”
Filmmaker: I know your previous work also heavily deals with this folklore—from your short Suicide by Sunlight to your episode of Two Sentence Horror Stories—and I’d love to know what has drawn you to exploring these horrifying legends as a filmmaker?
Jusu: I will say, for Two Second Horror Stories, Leon Hendrix III wrote that script, and it’s one of the few times I’ve directed someone else’s writing. He’s a really talented screenwriter in his own right, who is also exploring African and Black diasporic folklore in his own work. For myself, I’ve always had an affinity for darkness and creatures. I remember I used to watch True Blood, and I used to be into darker genres but always yearning for representation other than what I was seeing. I started doing a deep dive into vampires, and learned that most cultures have their iteration of the vampire that isn’t necessarily from Eastern Europe. There are all of these different iterations of vampires on the [African] continent and in Haiti, and I was curious about how monsters and creatures manifest in different cultures. The zombie hasn’t been done justice in the American cinematic paradigm in terms of what he truly reflected, of enslaved people reanimating and being in this purgatory. There’s a lot of space to play with these creatures that we’ve come to know as good versus bad, when really it’s a way to talk about the monster in us all—how we either run away from or acknowledge it.
Filmmaker: It’s been a few years since you did that interview with Vulture about the future of horror being Black and women-directed. Three years and a pandemic later, what do you think has managed to change, and what still feels like it frustratingly lags behind?
Jusu: I think the present of horror is becoming a lot more diverse in every sense of the word. And the monster—especially for Black filmmakers—doesn’t always have to be racism. There are other stories we can definitely tell from our folklore, and I think things are changing in a way that feels more sustainable than what I’ve observed in previous years. I think the pandemic has forced the industry to truly slow down and take stock of talent they may have overlooked or haven’t paid attention to. And in that sense, I do think newer voices are being listened to. Also in tangible ways in terms of resources—not mentorship, not just verbiage, but actual financing for these projects.
Filmmaker: Expanding on that, are you still planning to develop Suicide by Sunlight further?
Jusu: Yes, we are. Hopefully an announcement will come out soon about Suicide by Sunlight. I say hopefully, because the industry is so capricious, but it looks like my next feature will be fleshing out Suicide by Sunlight and the world that I created in the short.