"They say don't do animals and kids for your first feature," says the filmmaker Nikyatu Jusu. Her debut, Nanny, follows an emigrant from Senegal, Aisha, who takes a job working for a wealthy white family in New York City, tasked with caring for the couple's daughter as she dreams of her own son, who is back in West Africa, joining her in America. The film is as much a social-issue drama about privilege and microaggressions as it is a horror movie: As Aisha grows increasingly unnerved by her new surroundings, she finds herself haunted by mythological creatures within African folklore. "I had animals, kids, VFX..." Jusu lists off. "I am insane, but obviously that insanity paid off."
Nanny premiered at Sundance this year and won the Grand Jury Prize, making Jusu only the second Black woman director to do so, and Nanny the first horror film to claim the award. It's a historic achievement, but also a clear indication that Jusu is accomplishing what she set out to do: Redefine genre filmmaking.
"I love the tools at your arsenal in fantasy, if you have the budget. And a lot of filmmakers get shut out of fantasy because we don't get to play with those expensive tools," she tells A.frame. "A lot of audiences don't realize that there's a reason that, for instance, Black women filmmakers mostly work in drama. It's one of the cheaper genres. We're not given the budgets to play in the way that some filmmakers are. So, I want to establish myself as someone who is learning the breadth and depth of VFX, and really thinking deeply about creature creation."
Aisha begins seeing visions of Anansi the trickster spider and the water spirit Mami Wata, both supernatural beings of the African diaspora. The latter is a mermaid-like figure who evokes both reverence and fear, capable of bringing with her either good fortune in the form of wealth or destruction. Jusu found inspiration for Mami Wata in the creatures of Guillermo del Toro, albeit on an independent budget.
"We were a tier-one film," she explains. "My producer never lets me say the number — which I get — but that means we're under 10 million. And every penny that we got is on the screen."
In one sequence, Aisha (Anna Diop) accompanies her young charge, Rose, to a swimming lesson, where she encounters Mami Wata for the first time. The spirit surfaces from the water in the public pool and drags Aisha down with her into the murky depths. As shot by cinematographer Rina Yang and underwater camera operator Ian S. Takahashi, the scene is simultaneously evocative of The Shape of Water before it and wholly Nanny's own.
"In real time, you're thinking, 'Oh my God, this looks terrible. I wish I had $20 million more to make this look better,'" Jusu confesses. "But the way that you frame things up, you can really hone-in on the elements that look great. That's the beauty of controlling the audience's gaze. But in real time, it feels like things are falling apart because of your limited resources, and you're directing under a mask, yelling, at an echoey, humid YMCA pool."
Diop remembers, "I hadn't seen Mami Wata fully until my character turns around in the water and sees her. Our makeup artist, Risha Rox, was so excited, because she'd been building this thing, and she goes, 'Do you want to see?' And I said, 'Actually no, I'll save it for the moment.' And I'm glad I did, because it was really terrifying to be up-close with that thing. I was genuinely shaken to my core."
"We bonded after. She's a very sweet girl," Diop giggles. "But in the moment, I was scared of her!"
Following its Sundance debut, Nanny was picked up by Amazon Studios and Blumhouse Productions, with Jason Blum signing on as an executive producer. Jusu's next project is an adaptation of her 2019 short film, Suicide by Sunlight, for Jordan Peele's Monkeypaw Productions and Universal, about day-walking Black vampires who are protected from the sun by their melanin. She was also recently announced for a remake of George Romero's Night of the Living Dead.
"I'm a filmmaker who definitely wants to stay in fantasy. I got a micro lesson in creature features — creating creatures, creating molding for our stunt women, working with VFX teams," Jusu reflects. "I want to establish myself as a filmmaker who's centering non-traditional protagonists in these fantastical worlds, because I love creating things that we haven't seen in live-action."
By John Boone