Words by Siddhant Adlakha
Hollywood rarely learns the right lessons, so the mainstream Black horror revolution kicked off by Jordan Peele’s Get Out has had mixed success. High points have included his own films—Us and Nope, which Peele directed, and the Candyman reboot he produced—while plenty of imitators, like Them and Antebellum, have fallen flat. Nanny, the debut feature by Nikyatu Jusu, falls somewhere in the middle, often becoming a victim of its own genre flourishes. But it also boasts a frequent intensity rooted in its conceptual originality. The story of a Senegalese immigrant, Aisha (Anna Diop), navigating silent, unsettling American structures in the hopes of bringing her son to the United States, it’s a film whose overt use of horror imagery often robs it of its power, but only because its most oblique and subdued moments are also its most effective.
At its best, the film can be viciously intense, starting with its slow-motion dream sequence: a close-up that introduces us to Aisha, as she lays in bed, helpless, a flood engulfing her from all sides. Even when she wakes and goes about her day, Jusu (along with cinematographer Rina Yang) imbues the visual palette with hints of blue, creating a subtle oceanic tapestry that serves as a reminder of something lurking in her subconscious. After promising her kindly Senegalese landlord—whom she calls “aunty”—that she’ll be able to pay her soon, she begins her first day as a nanny on New York’s west side, at a fancy penthouse apartment belonging to business professional Amy (Michelle Monaghan) and her photographer husband Adam (Morgan Spector), who’s away on work. Their young daughter, Rose (Rose Decker), has a sensitive stomach, or so Aisha is told, but she has no trouble scarfing down homemade jollof rice—unbeknownst to Amy, who’s too preoccupied with a listless gloom—leading to a sweet intimacy between the two, as Aisha tutors Rose in French, and Rose gloms onto her, as the first person who lets her eat things she enjoys. Aisha is a mother herself, and was a teacher back in Senegal, though events about which she seldom speaks forced her to seek out a better life.
Amy is friendly—perhaps too friendly—and while this isn’t a problem at first, it leads to complicated skirmishes when she tries to stay in Aisha’s good books, through hints that she relates to her experience, while occasionally forgetting to pay her. This line, between personal and professional, grows increasingly blurry as the film goes on, especially once Adam returns from his assignment and re-introduces dormant marital tensions between himself and Amy, to which Aisha becomes an unwitting spectator. Adam’s photographs are of Black subjects, often Black protesters and the likes; his art is distinctly political, though he doesn’t really speak up when his wealthy house guests criticize ongoing protests movements.
Less isn’t always more, but in 'Nanny,' it usually is.
All this is merely the backdrop against which Aisha exists. She knows better than to raise her voice or put her foot where it doesn’t belong, especially since all the money she earns is immediately sent abroad, to pay for her son’s plane ticket (in the interim, she FaceTimes with him as much as she can). To Aisha, silence is currency. However, the unspoken tensions between her and her white employers slowly cascades, leading to scenes that brim with awkward, jagged intensity surrounding her place as an African woman in an unfamiliar country. However, while Jusu expertly twists these screws during quieter moments, the film’s use of more explicit, in-your-face horror imagery leaves a fair bit to be desired.
As the film explores Aisha’s increasingly frayed nerves at her place of employment, it also attempts to induce supernatural paranoia. She has frequent visions, of oddities unfolding in the corners of rooms, and even in mirrors. These pair nicely with the social tensions she experiences—in this way, Nanny makes for a stellar double feature with Mariama Diallo’s Master, another 2022 debut in which the specter of racial horror has physical manifestations—but the more the camera focuses on these horrors, and allows them to take concrete shape, the less scary they become.
There’s an artlessness to the way Nanny presents its surreal images, to the point that they come off as plain and ineffectual; even concepts that are imaginatively conceived are filmed at a distance, and edited without care for holding tension, as if to convey spiritual ideas from an intellectual standpoint, rather than an emotional one. At times, the film plays like a less thought-out, less considered version of His House, Remi Weekes’ stellar British drama on the horrors of African refugeeism and ghosts of the past. At one point, a secondary character in Nanny, a psychic who has spent some time in Western Africa (played with reverential command by Leslie Uggams) brings up the venerated spirit Mami Wata, as an embodiment of past horrors and the closely held anger with which Aisha navigates the world. The more Nanny ties the idea of water to looming danger, the more it also becomes overt in its depictions of the aforementioned spirit, but it seldom wields its image to induce the same sense of lurking doom as moments when the frame is mostly still, and the camera searches empty spaces. Less isn’t always more, but in Nanny, it usually is.
The film is at its scariest when Aisha is on the outskirts of something unseen or imaginary, whether the boundaries of Amy and Adam’s marriage—their increasing woes suck her into their orbit, resulting in an emotional transference of sorts, which bogs Aisha down—or the boundaries of Americanness. As an African immigrant, she’s an outsider not only to whiteness in America, but in small ways, to Blackness too, an experience which Jusu dramatizes even during Aisha’s more playful and flirtatious moments with the fancy building’s doorman, Malik (Sinqua Walls). A single father himself, Malik offers her the kind of tender acceptance few others outside of her small community can, and their blossoming dynamic provides the film with a much-needed warmth amidst Jusu’s frequent reminders that something is amiss.
Perhaps the main issue with Nanny is its propensity for straightforward literalism as a default follow-up to its spiritual musings. Everything that’s ethereal about it eventually calcifies. Even when its physical manifestations do result in something deeply tragic, the film is not only hesitant to finally confront the emotions underscoring its images, but it’s also dispiritingly quick to gloss over the difficult feelings of loss that keep hovering in the movie’s margins.
Instead, the story makes a sudden about-turn right at its moment of climax, opting for unearned upliftment that doesn’t actually allow for a meaningful confrontation of the grief and regret at its core. It hints constantly at these ideas, only to discard them the minute they become too real. To bring up another recent work that made far greater use of similar imagery, Nanny is no Atlantique, Mati Diop’s ghostly Senegalese drama in which water—both an escape route for refugees, as well as the biggest danger to them—is a serene affliction. Jusu’s film rarely features the same sense of paradoxical spiritual conflict within its visual storytelling. Things are either spooky, or not.
However, despite these frequent failings, what keeps Nanny glued together is Diop’s performance, as a mother and caretaker whose every attempt at love—whether for her own son, or for Rose—is met with some new social or psychological boundary. Moments where she drifts into daydreams, and experiences watery visions seemingly out of time, are challenging to dramatize and depict on a human face, given how they ride a line between real experience and the falsehood of dreams. But Diop creates Aisha out of the narrow space that lies between them, via increasing fragility and uncertainty that exist alongside increasing resilience.
What keeps Nanny glued together is Diop’s performance, as a mother and caretaker whose every attempt at love—whether for her own son, or for Rose—is met with some new social or psychological boundary.
Ultimately, Jusu ekes out a cinematic space for a character like Aisha where one likely would not have existed otherwise in the American horror landscape. Hand-in-hand with Diop, she creates an impactful cinematic image of a mother’s struggles, framed between deeply personal pillars of political and spiritual experience that—though the film eventually peters out—helps craft a creeping tale of the ways in which Aisha comes undone. It’s just unfortunate that Nanny comes undone alongside her.
Published on November 23, 2022