Nikyatu Jusu’s Fables

The director of Nanny, this year’s most acclaimed film at Sundance, blends West African folklore and horror.

Photo: Rahim Fortune
Photo: Rahim Fortune

The black intellectual, that star-crossed figure on the American scene forever charged with explaining Black folks to white folks and with explaining Black people to themselves — often from the perspectives of a distance refracted by double alienation,” writes the late critic Greg Tate in his seminal essay about Jean-Michel Basquiat, “Flyboy in the Buttermilk.” When I read the quote to writer-director Nikyatu Jusu, we’re huddled in a corner of the French Senegalese restaurant Cafe Rue Dix, one of her favorite spots in the city. It’s a cool, gray October morning in Crown Heights, the kind when it seems a torrent of rain could burst forth from the sky at any moment. Nineties hip-hop thrums from the speakers in the sparsely populated bistro as we discuss the power of film and the dynamics of Blackness over cups of black tea poured from a sturdy metallic pot. Hearing Tate’s words, she says, as she peers at me from behind thin, gold-framed glasses, “I feel so seen.”

Jusu is on the verge of the kind of power that has proved elusive for Black women directors. Amazon and Blumhouse have thrown their weight behind her debut feature, the horror fable Nanny, promoting it at festivals from Austin and L.A. to Lagos. It will show in select theaters November 23 and stream on Amazon December 16. Yet the story of Nanny’s rise demonstrates that double alienation that has defined every Black artist who has inspired Jusu.

The film, which premiered at Sundance in January, follows a young domestic worker named Aisha (Anna Diop), who is trying to bring her son, Lamine (Jahleel Kamara), to New York from Senegal. As she navigates her burdens while holding on to moments of joy as much as possible, Aisha is troubled by the wealthy white parents she works for and the creatures from West African folktales that move through her life with foreboding ease. At its best, Nanny braids a piercing domestic drama with an expansive understanding of myth. Some of its most effective scenes home in on the indignities its protagonist suffers — arguments with and lines crossed by her privileged employers — set against the reality that she must bear them to create a better life for her son.

Shot in New York on a low budget (30 percent of which was spent on PPE), Nanny went on to win the Sundance Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. Dramatic category. Jusu is just the second Black woman director, and Nanny the first horror film, to receive this honor. The festival is also where Jason Blum, Blumhouse’s founder and CEO, was first captivated by the film, which he would go on to executive-produce. The critical conversation around the film at Sundance was more mixed. Some non-Black male critics saw its folkloric narrative as “supernatural mumbo jumbo,” as one review read, reducing not only the film but the wealth of West African tales of Mami Wata and Anansi the spider to trifles not worth consideration or care. “I could tell,” Jusu would later say, “that they were lashing out because they weren’t the target audience. Not remotely.”

The response to Nanny at the festival limns the complicated terrain Black filmmakers must travel when entering and trying to build careers in Hollywood. The Black filmmaker is a star-crossed figure, as Tate notes, forced to walk a tightrope without a net, their balance pulled between a righteous desire to show the full brunt of Blackness with complication and the dynamics of an industry in which white folks primarily continue to hold the levers of power.

“Europe is not my center,” Jusu tells me at the café, echoing the words of director Ousmane Sembène, whose 1966 film, Black Girl, is a clear inspiration for Nanny. “I’ve done a lot of spiritual, intellectual, physical labor, being in predominantly white spaces for my entire life.” She stirs her tea, her gold jewelry glinting in the muted light. “So now allow me to just focus on the work. But everything comes with a price. Money’s never free; success is never free.”

Watch Nanny in select theaters on November 23 and streamon Amazon on December 16. Photo: Amazon

When I meet Jusu, a few things are immediate. Her tall frame is immaculately dressed in a black scarf and rust-colored jacket, her tattoo sleeve peeking out. Her sharp gaze is accentuated with dark, delicate winged eyeliner. She carries herself with the confidence that comes with understanding the world and one’s place within it.

Jusu was born to immigrant parents from Sierra Leone in Atlanta’s College Park East Point. While she was growing up there in the 1980s and ’90s, her multigenerational household teemed with the energy and voices of her younger brother, cousins, and uncles. Jusu’s love of film took root thanks to an uncle who frequented Turtle’s — “a bootleg Blockbuster,” she says — who would bring home VHS tapes. The family would gather in the basement before the warming glow of the television, eager to be transported to worlds far from their own. But Jusu’s creative North Stars include writers like Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler, and Saidiya Hartman. “They have a certain agency on the page,” she tells me, describing their ability to focus on storytelling rather than the demands of fans or critics. “When you succumb to those voices, your work is not good.”

In Atlanta, she attended a very white Christian high school. “I would clock in to these white institutions and come home and eat my plasas and my cassava leaves and hear my parents speaking Krio and Mende,” she recalls. The experience was weighed down by the xenophobia of her peers and teachers. “Luckily,” she says with a sigh, dipping into laughter, “I’ve always been able to perceive the world as a world that had the problem. My Blackness was not the problem; the world was the problem.”

She also carried the expectations of her immigrant parents. After high school, Jusu enrolled at Duke University, planning to become a biomedical engineer. But when she stumbled into a screenwriting class to fulfill an English requirement, her carefully laid path suddenly turned. She earned a degree in film in 2005 before moving on to the graduate film program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, where she was one of the three Black students, and two women, in the room. Jusu’s producing partner, Nikkia Moulterie, notes how different the fledgling director’s voice was from her peers. “A lot of the fresh-out-of-M.F.A. crowd were mining their own coming-of-age well,” she says. “The stories she was trying to tell were just so much more than that. Her gaze was so far-reaching.”

Jusu’s classes gave her a taste of what being a Black storyteller in Hollywood would feel like: as she describes it, “being disproportionately burdened with explaining yourself to your people, explaining your people to themselves, and explaining yourself to white people.” She recalled a peer in her graduate program crafting a satire about their class; one of the characters was obviously a cruel, caricatured riff on Jusu. “She was this inappropriately angry woman who was lashing out at nothing in particular.” When her classmate hosted a table read, Jusu confronted the actress playing her. “I told her, ‘If you knew what this was, you wouldn’t even be here doing this for this student.’ But that’s naïveté. Everyone needs to work, everyone needs exposure.” Both Jusu and the young actress were climbing the ladder and being used as Black women. “I used that as another example of the Black-skin–white-mass situation: The double-edged sword of being tasked, disproportionately burdened with explaining yourself to your people, explaining your people to themselves, and explaining yourself to white people.”

Jusu stayed in the city after Tisch, eventually teaching at an arts high school in Bed-Stuy. She left four years ago after taking an assistant-professor position in George Mason University’s film department. As she sees it, she couldn’t have made Nanny if she had stayed in the city. “I left New York because I knew I wanted to own a home,” she says. “I moved every two years for 13 years in New York. The beginning of the end was getting kicked out of one brownstone because the owner wanted to restore it and raise the rent. I was so focused on survival I wasn’t able to focus on my art.” Crafting a quiet life in Baltimore gave Jusu time to think about her next moves as a filmmaker. “I’m trying,” she says, “to stay true to the type of work that I want to create.”

So what defines a Nikyatu Jusu joint? I became aware of her work at the 2019 Sundance festival, where she debuted her short film Suicide by Sunlight. She will soon be expanding it into a feature with director Jordan Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions. It follows a Black nurse who struggles with familial estrangement while dealing with a more fantastical reality: being a vampire whose melanin enables her to walk in the sunlight. In 17 minutes, Jusu establishes a world in which horror can bloom unexpectedly with cinematography that uses rich, bejeweled tones to highlight the beauty of Black skin.

Nanny’s visual language is similarly bold. When crafting the film’s look early on in their collaboration, Jusu and cinematographer Rina Yang studied the work of several visual artists, such as Boscoe Holder and Roy DeCarava. Nanny maintains a painterly quality whether Aisha finds herself in the depths of a lushly rendered dark pool or in the throes of a tense conversation with her boss, Amy (Michelle Monaghan), among the wares of her sterile, minimalist home. Filmed in a variety of neighborhoods in the city including Harlem’s Little Senegal, Nanny is a work of stunning complication bolstered by the refined visual dexterity of Jusu as a director and her collaborator, cinematographer Rina Yang. Nanny is brimming with indelible images: the shadow of a spider creeping along the side of a wall; mold blooming in the corner of a room; water encasing its lead; bejeweled lighting gracing her deep-brown skin. I’ve long held a theory that you can tell the worth of a film for Black folks based on how Black actors are lit and shot. Does the work acknowledge and pay tribute to the diverse beauty of Blackness? For Nanny, it’s a resounding yes. The film’s visual rhythms and beauty is astounding to witness, lulling you into submission as the folkloric figures shaping Aisha’s life become more demanding and hard to ignore whether in dreams of drowning or in visions of her son where he should not be.

Water steeps the story in folkloric possibility. It appears in Aisha’s overheated nightmares of drowning and envelops her after a devastating truth comes to light. It becomes a vision of transformation no matter how painful, a means of rebirth. As Shamira Ibrahim writes in Allure magazine, “In many Black spiritual practices that predate colonial interactions, there has long been a reverence for water and cleansing. These rituals and concepts have been preserved and transported to the Americas and beyond as a by-product of the transatlantic slave trade. They can be found in everything from African traditional religions and their descendants, such as Ifa and Black American Hoodoo, to the cultural syncretism embedded in Black expressions of Abrahamic religions.” Jusu is taking the tools our ancestors built for us and crafting new structures to delight, challenge, and bear witness to the spiritual, psychological, and emotional dynamics of Blackness itself.

Diop is the film’s greatest revelation; she bridges the movie’s interests in both archly folkloric and more tender dramatic fare. She layers her character with a wounded interiority and strength. She is especially strong in the film’s quietest moments, such as a complex scene when Amy pushes Aisha to wear an expensive red dress of hers at a surprise party she’s hosting to welcome her disengaged photographer husband home. When Amy graces Aisha’s arm, you can feel Diop curl into herself; the tension blooms owing in part to the guardedness in Diop’s eyes, the hesitation in her movements. Part of Nanny’s power stems from the collaboration by Diop and Jusu. “She’s my Daniel Kaluuya,” Jusu says of Diop, reflecting on the relationship between Peele and the actor. “I get her, and she gets me. That’s something that is built over the course of decades for some people. But it was instantaneous for us, and it’s because our mothers have very similar stories,” referring to their West African heritage and their mothers’ time in domestic work. “She is an actor’s director, but she’s also a cinematographer’s director,” Diop says of Jusu. “She just possesses so much capacity in her role.”

The film is a love letter to the kind of woman its lead represents: Those who toil as domestic workers, their lives bent to the whims of the more powerful among them. The kind of women another film would render only in the margins. Nanny is rooted entirely in Aisha’s perspective as a human being, dancing along parallel tracks of narrative import: her work as a caretaker for Rose (Rose Decker) navigating the complicated mores of her rich, white parents, and the reason she’s doing this work in order to bring her young son, Lamine, to the city from Senegal. But just as Aisha gains a foothold in her new job, she is beset by strange visions and surreal encounters with emblems of West African folklore — the trickster Anansi spider and the mermaidlike Mami Wata. Even amid the terror — both racial and folkloric — that suffuses Aisha’s life, she is able to find moments of joy, particularly through connecting with Malik (Sinqua Walls), her employer’s doorman, and his grandmother, Kathleen (Leslie Uggams).

One of the most powerful relationships in the film is seemingly the most minor between Senegelese Aisha and American Kathleen. Their brief but potent conversations act as an argument about what binds the Black diaspora: the stories we tell and have passed down throughout generations wrecked by racial upheaval and colonialism. Jusu’s work here acts as an argument for the power of African folklore — not just from the west coast of the continent but throughout the diaspora.

When I first watched the film earlier this year, I felt the ending was too rushed as it moved through a series of dramatic turns in Aisha’s life. I wished for more time to sit with the intimate drama of her upheaval and the final note of hope. But on subsequent watches, I became enamored with what Jusu seeks to accomplish as a writer: Nanny is more fable than anything else, and as such, it defies the simplistic three-act structure expected in American filmmaking.

It was recently announced that Jusu will helm a sequel to Night of the Living Dead written by The Walking Dead’s LaToya Morgan. Currently on sabbatical from George Mason, Jusu sees teaching as an extension of her work as a director; on her Instagram Stories, she diligently shares behind-the-scenes moments meant to demystify the filmmaking process for the underrepresented and marginalized among us. Yet Hollywood opportunities haven’t convinced her to leave teaching behind entirely. “The more breaks I have for myself, the more I’m like, Do I want to be part of that machine and do everything that comes with that? Or do I want to make something I truly believe in every few years and still teach and have my little quiet house and live below my means? she wonders. “The more you see of the figurative monster that is the industry, the more you assess what you’re willing to do to get what other people have gotten.”

Nikyatu Jusu’s Fables