Earlier this year, Senegalese horror movie Saloum impressed critics and audiences alike on Shudder. Though African filmmaking isn’t synonymous with the genre, a handful of impressive horror movies have come from African countries over the last few years. South Africa, for instance, has produced Gaia, Good Madam, and The Lullaby – all strong additions to the genre. Now Amazon Prime has recently added Senegalese horror Nanny, which blends psychological horror with African folklore. Back in January, Nanny won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. And it has continued to impress critics.
Aisha, an undocumented Senegalese immigrant came to New York looking for the American Dream. She’s left everything behind, including her young son, hoping to make enough money to bring him stateside. When she finds a job as a nanny for a wealthy family, Aisha believes she’s one step closer to that dream. But the family increasingly exploits her vulnerable position. And strange visions begin to haunt her with a message that may irrevocably change her life.
Nanny Sparingly Uses Horror To Cast Light on the Mistreatment of Immigrant Women
Courtesy of Blumhouse Television and first-time writer and director Nikyatu Jusu, Nanny blends genres and storytelling formats. While elements of horror are woven into the movie, Jusu opts for more subtle approaches, which means Nanny plays more like a psychological drama. From start to finish, there’s an unsettling atmosphere hanging over the story. In fact, Jusu exhibits an impressive amount of confidence in debut feature. Over its 98 minutes, the thriller sparingly uses surreal images in place of shocks and jumps. Jusu lets the audience see things through Aisha’s eyes in these moments. As a result, it’s often hard to tell whether what we’re seeing is Aisha’s nightmares or genuine horrors.
Much of the subtle tension inherent in the thriller arises from Aisha’s interactions with the family for whom she works.
Rather than explicit horror, Nanny uses these elements of horror to cast light on the plight of immigrants and women in particular. Much of the subtle tension inherent in the thriller arises from Aisha’s interactions with the family for whom she works. What works so well across these interactions are the ways in which Jusu uses more implicit – or perhaps bettered referred to as micro-aggressions – forms of exploitation to show Aisha’s precarious position. Whether it’s requests to work late or falling behind on payments, Jusu drives home the mistreatment of immigrant Black women. Even the seemingly kind (or at least benign) husband exploits Aisha for his own self-interest.
Nanny Weaves African Folklore Aside Quietly Strong Performances
Jusu’s confidence as a filmmaker extends to her screenplay that ambiguously incorporates African folklore. First, Nanny introduces the idea of Mami Wata, a water spirit that resembles a mermaid. Later Jusu weaves in the story of Anansi the Spider, a trickster, who’s first mentioned in a bedtime story before Aisha begins seeing images of spiders in dreams and when she’s awake. Here, the storytelling is meticulous as Jusu uses the legends in service to the movie’s bigger themes. Moreover, Nanny keeps the intentions of these spirits in a gray area never fully articulating what they want with Aisha. By the end of the movie, Jusu offers a conclusion that is as ambiguous as the rest of the movie – both a grim reminder of the immigrant experience and still hopeful.
Jusu’s confidence as a filmmaker extends to her screenplay that ambiguously incorporates African folklore.
On the other side of the camera, Anna Diop (Us, Titans) turns in a quietly strong performance as Aisha. Specifically, Jusu’s gives Aisha a compelling arc and Diop adds layers to the character that matches the ambiguity of the story. Despite the role she plays in Aisha’s exploitation, Michelle Monaghan (The Craft: Legacy) doesn’t have quite as much to do as one might expect. But she fills out the role and exemplifies the privilege that’s at the heart of the exploitation of Aisha. And Sinqua Walls (Shark Night) charms in the smaller supporting role of ‘Malik’, which hopefully means bigger roles in his future.
Nanny a Quietly Unsettling Thriller With Bits of Ambiguous Horror
Though its connection to the horror genre may be a bit tenuous, Nanny is a quietly haunting story about the immigrant experience and fallacy of the American Dream. It’s a confident and impressive directorial debut for Nikyatu Jusu. Specifically, Nanny weaves a poignant tale of of the perils facing an immigrant woman with African mythology. The result is an ambiguous thriller that mixes hope with the bittersweet. And Anna Diop’s performance deserves attention and bigger roles down the road.