It’s remarkable how infrequently modern-day domestic workers are portrayed as fully formed characters in TV and film, given their ubiquity and necessity in the lives of so many. Perhaps part of that is because “the help” isn’t meant to be noticed (the flamboyant Fran Fine notwithstanding) or that the lives of low-wage people of color, many of whom are immigrants, haven’t traditionally piqued the interest of privileged Hollywood. When domestic workers do see screen time, it’s often through the gaze of the privileged.
Enter film-maker Nikyatu Jusu, whose mother, an immigrant from Sierra Leone, had been a domestic worker. Raised in Atlanta, the young Jusu watched her parent “put her dreams to the side to be a peripheral mother in other mother’s narratives”.
That experience deeply informs Jusu’s feature-film debut, Nanny, a supernatural thriller that tells the story of Aisha (Anna Diop), a Senegalese immigrant nanny in New York City who works for an upper middle-class white family while saving up to bring her own young son to the United States. As she is drawn deeper into the family’s lives, however, she contends with forces both otherworldly and real that threaten her American dream.
Jusu infuses the film with rich details that give fresh insight into the immigrant-nanny experience: the glances exchanged with the pregnant housecleaner, the jokes on a park bench shared with fellow immigrant nannies, a tight smile from the parents’ privileged Black friend, the Tupperware meals of jollof rice, which becomes a pivotal plot point when the young daughter takes a liking to the west African staple to the chagrin of her mother, who would prefer that her child eat sterile, pre-prepped bland foods.
That’s one of many micro-aggressions, given that Aisha’s employers are Well-Meaning White Liberals: the stressy mother and aspiring girlboss (Michelle Monaghan) awkwardly attempts to bond with Aisha over being a woman in a boys-club workplace (“you know what that’s like”), while the father, a third-world/conflict photojournalist with a roving eye (Morgan Spector), claims to be doing what he can to make up for Aisha’s weeks of backpay but ends up deflecting nearly all domestic responsibility.
But these aren’t mere one-dimensional caricatures, and ultimately they’re not the only malignant forces at work in the film. The African folk figures of Mami Wata, a seductive yet dangerous water spirit, and the wise trickster spider Anansi factor in as symbols of survival and resistance for oppressed people, and their eerie depictions help Nanny stand out from the genre’s typical fare.
All this results in a film that teems with tremendously promising parts that manage to hold your attention for much of the film’s 97 minutes – but Nanny, as a whole, packs a rather toothless punch. It feels loosely assembled – chock-full of original ideas, intriguing imagery, and plot devices, many of which either oddly wind up as loose ends or get resolved in a hurry. Meanwhile, despite frequent references to the many menaces that surround Aisha’s existence in her new country – the HAL 9000-like red-lit nanny cam; the surveillance-camera-style footage that shows her entering the luxury-apartment elevator; the exploitation of developing-world violence by developed-world news media; a relative’s joke voicemail greeting that becomes less funny and more ominous with each encounter; her employers’ constant denial of her agency, through their inconsiderate, half-baked demands and odd inability to come up with enough cash – the film stumbles in building tension and constructing suspense.
There’s certainly a lot going on, and it contributes to the slide from confusion to terror. At the same time, it’s perhaps a missed opportunity to explore some of the very real exploitation and abuse that domestic workers in the United States regularly face. Jusu brings a novel perspective, especially as a film-maker interested in translating the all-too-real injustices of American history and society into genre films (her 2019 short, Suicide by Sunlight, featured a Black vampire trying to regain custody of her daughters). Fortunately for her, there’s no shortage of horror stories here to mine.
Nanny is showing at the Sundance film festival with a release date to be announced