IIt is remarkable how infrequently domestic workers today are portrayed as fully formed characters on television and film, given their ubiquity and necessity in so many people’s lives. Perhaps part of that is because “the help” isn’t meant to be noticed (the flamboyant Fran Fine however) or that the life of low-wage people of color, many of whom are immigrants, traditionally have not aroused the interest of the Hollywood privileged. When domestic workers see screen time, it’s often through the eyes of the privileged.
Enter filmmaker Nikyatu Jusu, whose mother, an immigrant from Sierra Leone, had been a domestic worker. Raised in Atlanta, young Jusu saw his father “she put aside her dreams of being a peripheral mother in the narratives of other mothers.”
That experience profoundly influences 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 for take her own son to the United States. However, as he digs deeper into the family’s lives, he comes face to face with real and otherworldly forces that threaten his American dream.
Jusu infuses the film with rich details that provide a new take on the immigrant nanny experience: the glances exchanged with the pregnant house cleaner, the banter on a park bench shared with other immigrant nannies, a strained smile from the privileged black friend from the parents, the Tupperware jollof rice meals, which becomes a pivotal plot point when the young daughter takes a liking to the West African staple much to the chagrin of her mother, who would rather her son eat sterile, prepared foods previously.
That’s one of many microaggressions, given that Aisha’s employers are well-meaning white liberals: the stressed-out mother and would-be boss (Michelle Monaghan) awkwardly attempts to bond with Aisha for being a woman in a boys’ club workplace. (“you know what?”). that’s like”), while the father, a third world/conflict photojournalist with a wandering eye (Morgan Spector), claims to be doing what he can to make up for Aisha’s weeks of back pay, but ends up diverting almost all of the domestic responsibility.
But these are not mere one-dimensional caricatures, and ultimately they are not the only evil 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 are symbols of survival and resistance for oppressed people, and their creepy portrayals help Nanny stand out from the genre’s typical fare.
All of this results in a movie that’s packed with wildly promising parts that manage to hold your attention for much of the film’s 97 minutes, but Nanny, as a whole, packs a pretty toothless punch. It feels loosely put together: packed with original ideas, intriguing visuals, and plot devices, many of which strangely end up as loose ends or are quickly resolved. Meanwhile, despite frequent references to the many threats surrounding Aisha’s existence in her new country: the HAL 9000-like red light nanny cam; the surveillance-camera-style footage showing her entering the elevator of a luxury apartment; the exploitation of violence in the developing world by the media of the developed world; a prank voicemail greeting from a relative that gets less funny and more sinister with each encounter; The constant denial of her agency by her employers, through her inconsiderate and half-hearted demands and her bizarre inability to scrape together enough cash – the film stumbles at building tension and building suspense.
Certainly many things are happening, and contributing to the fall from confusion to terror. At the same time, it is perhaps a missed opportunity to explore some of the more real aspects exploitation and abuse regularly faced by domestic workers in the United States. Jusu brings a fresh perspective, especially as a filmmaker 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 his daughters. ). Fortunately for her, there’s no shortage of horror stories here for mine.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism