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Sundance 2022: Nikyatu Jusu on Nanny

Born and raised in Atlanta to Sierra Leonean parents, filmmaker Nikyatu Jusu’s films focus primarily on underrepresented complexities of Black women in America. Many of her films utilize genre techniques to explore these themes, including her short film “Suicide By Sunlight” which follows a Black vampire whose melanin protects her from sunlight. Executive produced by Terence Nance, the short premiered at Sundance in 2019 to much acclaim. After developing the script for a decade, her debut feature “Nanny” was selected for the 2019 IFP Project Forum and the 2020 Sundance Directors and Screenwriters Labs before landing a place on the coveted Black List. “Nanny” stars Anna Diop as Aisha, an undocumented Senegalese immigrant earning money to bring her son to New York City by working as a nanny for a wealthy Manhattan couple. As his arrival approaches and pressures at her job mount from microaggressions to lack of payment, supernatural forces begin to take hold of Aisha. Deftly weaving West African folklore with the horrors of Aisha’s everyday life, “Nanny” announces Jusu as a singular up and coming talent. 

In your Meet The Filmmakers interview for Sundance, you said “Nanny” was a love letter to mothers who have been excluded from the American dream. What does that mean to you and how is it reflected in the film?

I'm not a mother, but I have a deeply profound love from my own mother and for the women in my family. It’s very matriarchal. The women are really powerful in my family. I’m a first generation American. My parents are from Sierra Leone, straight. So I grew up with a lot of strong, Black, African women around me. My friend group is full dynamic, smart women of color, and women in general. So I have always observed the ways that women have moved through the world, particularly women of color, particularly Black women. We don't often have cinema that really celebrates that inherent strength, or that strength that has to be nurtured. These women are not often featured as the protagonist in a lot of films. I wanted to center a woman like this. There is a lot of trauma in this film, but I tried to juxtapose those moments with joy. So just across the board, like this is very much a nod to the women who tend to be extras and peripheral characters in the stories of mostly white women, and mostly privileged white women in cinema. I wanted to put a spotlight on some of those women who people often don't think about when they're maneuvering their daily lives in the world, or more privileged people don't think about.

A later scene in the film that really struck me happens when Amy (Michelle Monaghan) comes home sort of exasperated, and she's talking about how she can't break into the boys club at work. And at this point, she hasn't paid Aisha (Anna Diop) for a long time and the camera holds on her reaction and the look on her face. Can you talk about what that scene meant for you?

I think when you are a Black woman or a woman of color, who's maneuvered whiteness, like whether it's for work, or academia or whatever, whenever you've been like one of those people maneuvering a space where you are one of the only ones and you have to be in this space to make money, you learn to subdue your rage at microaggressions that accrue over the course of your tenure in these spaces. And you learn to kind of accept this self-centeredness that I think a lot of self-proclaimed white feminists tend to have. White liberal women who perceive themselves to be very pretty to the world. There's a self-absorbedness that a lot of women of color have to maneuver in these spaces. And so in order to avoid becoming the angry Black woman, you know, in order to avoid leaning into this title that people are eager to give you, you tend to just learn to try to get what you need in these spaces without having to rage. And then that was a moment where, even though Aisha shouldn’t have had to endure all of these indignities, she still feels like she has to present this respectability in this space, and present herself as very calm and stoic.

Could talk a bit about casting Anna Diop as Aisha, who immigrated from Senegal as a child. What were you looking for in the casting of this role?

I started writing this, on and off, eight or so years ago, so I definitely didn't know about her when I first started conceiving of the project. But over the course of the years, and when it started to become tangible that this was maybe going to be my first feature, I started paying attention to African actresses working in America. I stumbled across her, this was before she was on “Titans”. I just remember seeing her face. I didn't know what her voice sounded like. I didn't know her acting ability. I just saw her face and I earmarked her as someone who I potentially might want to work with. Then we went through the casting process once we finally got financed, and she was just always in the back of my mind. So I was rooting for her to kill it in her audition. Our casting director brought me so many amazing women and I really made it clear that I didn’t want to hear a bad African accent. When I say Africa, it's a big continent, there are many nuances to the different accents and as a first gen American, my ears are perked to bad African accents. So I wanted someone who at least understood the authenticity that I was going for, and at least originated from some semblance of that authenticity. Anna killed her audition and she already had the look that I was going for. She's very graceful. She's very subtle. She's athletic. I needed someone who could swim. Then on top of that, she’s Senegalese-American and truly understands West African culture. We have a lot of similarities between Sierra Leone and Senegal, even though it's two very different countries. That was really important to me. She even has a scar on her arm that a lot of West Africans have from immunization. 

I love the way you incorporated both Mami Wata and Anansi the spider into the story. Could you talk a bit about how you drew inspiration from those folktales?

A lot of African diasporic people kind of grow up, even superficially, knowing about Anansi the spider. I think it’s one of the most popular figures in African folklore. The trickster figure is prevalent in most cultures. Indigenous people have their trickster figures, Black Americans have their trickster figures, like Brer Rabbit is like a Southern rendition of Anansi the spider. There are many names for this trickster figure. Mami Wata is a very specific type of mermaid figure, who oversees a very nuanced marine kingdom, it's all really complicated. I'm just scratching the surface in this film, but these two figures aesthetically and visually just really stood out to me in terms of forms of resistance that diaspora Black people utilize to just move over enslavement and maneuver new worlds. And it's not always good or bad. I think in a lot of cinema we have good and bad. These are the good people. These are the bad events. The antagonist and the protagonist. But in African folklore there is this in between that is always prevalent. This liminal space that is continuously like the past, present and future at all times. It's continuously good and bad simultaneously. So I wanted to incorporate the ways that people have resisted and may not be perceived as respectable. Like some of us want to burn this shit down and some of us care about how we're perceived. So those are some of the themes that I wanted to maneuver through Anansi because he is such a chaos agent. He is an agent of literal chaos, which I think is so fun to convey in cinema. Mami Wata is a much more seductive, cunning representation than waiting to get what you want through more subtle means of manipulation. But Anansi is just like fuck this we're gonna burn this shit down, even if you burn in the process of burning it down.

That reminds of that really striking portrait that Amy's husband, Adam (Morgan Spector) took of the protester with the flames behind him who he just very nonchalantly says is dead. 

Africans who come to America suddenly are just Black. They're no longer affiliated with their tribes, or their specific cultures within their countries or specific religions or languages within the country. They just become this black canvas of Black. I think for African immigrants in America, it's a hard lesson that you learn that you do have to pay attention to the plight of Black people in this country. You can’t think that you can just be an other in this landscape. What's important about that scene is that Aisha is starting to become more attuned to the political landscape she’s navigating, even though she just really wants money that she needs to bring her son over. She wants very basic, fundamental human needs. But she can only stay ignorant to the political landscape for so long. A lot of Black American activists have died under very suspicious circumstances in this country, so it's a head nod to that as well. Like, why is he really dead? This person who had all this charisma and all this reverence and all of this ability to command his people to want to burn the city down with him. That's a powerful tool. 

I loved the relationship between Aisha and Malik (Sinqua Walls) and how you showed what they had in common and what they didn't have in common and how that relationship evolves.

I'm very much American and I'm very much African. I was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, within an African microcosm, but very much black American and very much African simultaneously. So growing up, we had Trinidadian aunts and uncles, we had Jamaican aunts and uncles, we had African American friends who were just Black American. There's so many intersections in terms of nationality and ethnicity for Black people in this country. I don't often see that reflected in cinema. So this was the norm for me. It wasn't like these separate microcosms for me. So I wanted to show a love story that was two people from different sides of the track, sharing cultures but finding commonalities in two very different cultures. But also, that blanket statement of being Black in this country is something that forces us to start to merge together in different ways, especially in places like New York, where we're all on top of each other.

Could you talk a bit about working with cinematographer Rina Yang and what you were aiming for aesthetically with the visuals for the film? 

Rina is brilliant. I gravitated to the work she had done in the UK with the “Top Boy”. I always look for a DP who knows how to light and shoot Black skin and the nuances of Black skin because Black skin comes in so many different shades. I needed somebody who understands how to convey those different shades in one film. Rina also has a really unique style that is all her own. She’s not afraid to experiment with form. I wanted someone who possessed all of these things. So when she came on board, we didn't have long conversations. We actually exchanged a lot of images. So I would send her a reference image and she would get it, and she would send me a reference image and I would get it. She was someone I trusted with the images. I had a vision that we talked through in prep, but once we start shooting my priority is always the actors. I need to get the actors where they need to be to give me the performances that I need. So I need to have a DP who I can just leave and trust to shoot what I need, and know the setup for what I need and when I'm looking at the monitor, it's exactly what I need. 

We wanted to immerse the audience in Aisha’s perspective, so we had Aisha at the edge of the frame. We held on Aisha’s face. Faces are really important, eyes are really important to me, hands are really important to me. Then we had the saturation of colors Aisha’s world versus Amy and Adam’s world, which is a little bit more sterile. Our production designer Jonathan Guggenheim is amazing. He also worked on “Scream”. The color palette that they were able to create together was just magnificent and surpassed my expectations.

What do you hope people take away from the film when they're done watching it?

I don't know how to answer that. Like, I really don't honestly. I am curious to know what people take away. I always want to throw that question back and be like, what did you take away? I think that in the reading process of the script, particularly my white women mentors, said they sat with the script and started to look around and started to pay more attention to certain things. That's like a small piece of what my goal is, for everybody to take inventory of the world that they're navigating and really see each other a little bit more clearly. Those are my goals with storytelling. I hope that's a facet of what people take away: seeing both themselves more clearly and other people more clearly, regardless of ethnicity and race and nationality.

(Photo Credit: The Sundance premiere Q&A. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.)

Marya E. Gates

Marya E. Gates is a freelance film and culture writer based in Los Angeles and Chicago. She studied Comparative Literature at U.C. Berkeley, and also has an overpriced and underused MFA in Film Production. Other bylines include Moviefone, The Playlist, Crooked Marquee, Nerdist, and Vulture. 

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