Nanny - Anna Diop - Amazon Prime
Credit: Amazon Prime Video
by Daniel Gorman Featured Film Genre Views

Nanny — Nikyatu Jusu

November 30, 2022

Nanny promisingly begins as an unsettling study in neoliberal microaggressions but sadly slides into standard-gauge horror tomfoolery in its second half.

Nikyatu Jusu’s Nanny is the kind of movie you desperately want to embrace; it’s well-acted, well-photographed, and well-meaning, engaged with issues in the world beyond the boundaries of its own narrative. And yet, it’s ultimately a disappointment, a drama that gradually loses sight of its characters coupled with a horror film that traffics in well-trod, even clichéd territory. Indeed, it’s the disconnect between these two modes — sharply observed social realism and mostly tired genre elements — that sinks the whole project.

Anna Diop stars as Aisha, a Senegalese immigrant who takes the titular position in the home of wealthy Manhattan couple Amy (Michelle Monaghan) and Adam (Morgan Spector). Their daughter Rose is quiet but polite, awkward around her neurotic mother and seemingly desperate for attention from her oft-absent father. Aisha settles in and quickly forms a bond with Rose, even as Adam reveals himself to be a philanderer (and possibly a sex-pest) while Amy alternates needy faux-friendliness with an aggressive superiority complex. More than a few critics have remarked upon Nanny’s resemblance to Ousmane Sembène’s 1966 film Black Girl, another tale of a Black woman working for a white couple and navigating some fraught power and racial dynamics. In Sembène’s film, African masks adorn the couple’s home like decorative props while in fact standing in as symbols of French colonialism. Here, Jusu has updated the motif to more carefully reflect our modern era. The couple in question are self-styled liberals; Amy fancies herself an “ally” while Adam is a photojournalist who has some of his work hanging on his office walls (his favorite is of a Black man posed triumphantly in front of a pillar of flames). But Jusu carefully dismantles their faux-progressiveness — both are agreeable enough until they want something from Aisha, and are quick to flaunt their wealth and power when they don’t get it.

As if these ever-escalating microaggressions weren’t enough, Aisha has her own child to worry about. Her son, Lamine (Jahleel Kamara), lives with his aunt in Senegal, and Aisha is saving up money to bring her sister and Lamine to New York to live with her. But the saving is slow going, and Amy exacerbates the situation by forgetting to pay Aisha on time and getting snippy when Aisha tries to be more assertive. Into this uneasy situation comes haunting visions of shadowy specters; spiders, and other creepy crawlers appear to Aisha while she sleeps and, eventually, even during her waking hours, as well as elaborate visions of drowning. Is she going crazy or are these warnings? In a grating bit of info-dump exposition, Aisha consults her boyfriend’s grandmother, who helpfully explains aspects of African folklore and eradicates virtually all mystery and subtext from the film. Aisha’s visions are pro-forma horror stuff, totally perfunctory images that play out exactly how you think they will. Monaghan and Spector largely disappear from the second half of the film, as Jusu moves away from the dramatic and embraces the horror. It’s a fatal miscalculation, abandoning the specificity and detail of Diop’s lived-in performance for standard-gauge elevated horror tomfoolery. Even the film’s attempt to highlight African folklore and mythology, a welcome change from the European model we’re all too familiar with, falls flat. Jusu attempts to tie all of this together in a rushed ending that barrels through a (heavily foreshadowed) tragedy that barely has time to register before a desultory happy ending. Nothing has time to play out, to breathe, and themes of rebirth and new beginnings are merely tacked on like an afterthought. Jusu clearly has talent, and Diop is truly remarkable as Aisha, obviously a star in the making. Hopefully they’ll both leave behind this reductive territory and have better luck on their next outings.

You can currently catch Nikyatu Jusu’s Nanny in theaters or streaming on Amazon Prime Video beginning on December 16.