‘You feel your Blackness is the bad thing’: the director whose nanny horror won Sundance

Nikyatu Jusu drew partly on personal experience for her debut feature film about an African woman employed by a white family. But, she says, as a Black director overlooked by the industry for years, her success could not have come without laser-like focus

As a young director, Nikyatu Jusu made all the right moves. She had a master’s degree from a top university and spent a decade making shorts, winning prizes and hustling to get a feature film made. But doors didn’t swing open for the Black woman behind the camera.

So when she was appointed assistant professor of screenwriting and directing at George Mason University in Virginia a few years ago, her mother gently suggested it might be time to call it a day. She told Jusu: “Whenever you’re ready to stop pursuing this thing, know that you have made us proud. It’s enough.”

Her mother, Jusu says, could see the psychological cost of hitting the glass ceiling. “It’s really hard to pursue a passion this long and know it’s not about you and your skill, it’s about the industry not seeing you.”

Now, though, all eyes in the industry are on her. Her debut feature, Nanny, a slippery psychological thriller with elements of horror, picked up the top prize at Sundance earlier this year and was snapped up by Prime Video. Jusu, 40, is now working on a full-length version of a vampire short she directed in 2019, produced by Jordan Peele’s company, Monkeypaw.

Striding into a central London hotel in ripped black jeans and knee-high boots, Jusu looks the part of a woman calling the shots. She is forthright and formidable. When I inarticulately mumble a question, she fixes me with a look of semi-stern amusement. In her other life on campus, I suspect she is the lecturer whom students most want to impress. I like her instantly: she is open and warm, driven by emotions as much as intellect.

The idea for Nanny came to her when she moved to New York to study at NYU’s graduate film school – one of only two Black women in her class. Walking around the streets of Manhattan, what struck her were the nannies. “All these Black and brown women pushing strollers along the streets.” So many nannies looking after white children; they formed little cliques in the parks. “You had the Filipino nannies here, the Jamaican nannies, the Haitian nannies. It was like the United Nations of nannies.” Jusu smiles drily. “That was the catalyst for me to begin to map out my story.”

Elsewhere, it has been written that Nanny is also inspired by the struggles and sacrifices of her mother, Hannah Khoury, as a domestic worker in the US. That is true up to a point, but Jusu wants to clarify that she had other jobs too. “My mom quietly self-published a novel. And she owned a business.” But domestic work provided her most dependable form of income: working as a nanny, and more recently as a care worker for elderly women at the end of their lives (“transitioning”, as Jusu describes death). “It’s one of the most accessible forms of work for African women in America.”

Anna Diop as Aisha and Michelle Monaghan as her boss, Amy, in Nanny.
Anna Diop as Aisha, left, and Michelle Monaghan as her boss, Amy, in Nanny. Photograph: Courtesy of Prime Video

Jusu was born in Atlanta, Georgia, to Sierra Leonean parents who met in the US. Her parents encouraged her to work hard. Excellence was expected as standard. But when she graduated, she says, her parents did not come. “Nothing was impressive … It was like: yeah … and?” She raises an eyebrow.

She says the biggest gift her parents gave her was self-belief. “My dad really made me feel that I could manoeuvre in any room. That I belonged in any room. That is priceless.” Her father, Ronald, was charismatic, an extrovert and a rebel. He had a master’s degree but struggled to find work in the US – “significantly because of racism, but also because he was brazen”. He didn’t like to be bossed around, she says. “I think I have a lot of his personality.” Ronald always planned to return to Sierra Leone to run for political office. “Which is a little delusional. But we all need a little delusion, right.” Her mother she describes as academic, “a voracious reader”.

“I am gassing up my parents,” Jusu laughs. “Because, to me, they’re two of the most amazing people in the world.” They were 100% behind her ambition to become a director. “Nobody in my family thought this was feasible. But my parents supported me.” Like many African immigrants, she says, the advice from her dad was to pursue academia. “He was like: ‘Your backup plan is to teach.’”

Nikyatu Jusu at the AFI Fest screening of Nanny earlier this month.
Self-belief … Nikyatu Jusu at the AFI Fest screening of Nanny earlier this month. Photograph: Gilbert Flores/Variety/Getty Images

Ronald died of cancer while she was in preproduction on the film. “I’m still going through a substantial grieving process.” But she does believe he has a ringside seat to her success now. “I know my dad is up there pulling strings. I feel he definitely sees what’s happening.” Jusu stops to gather her thoughts, and laughs. “This is like a therapy session. In a good way.”

What does her mum think of the film? “She’s just happy she gets to see a return on her investment.”

And what a return. Nanny stars Anna Diop as Aisha, a Senegalese nanny hired by a rich white couple to look after their six-year-old daughter. The wife, Amy (Michelle Monaghan), is superficially warm but beneath the tight smiles she is brittle and controlling. Unforgivably, she never pays on time – so Aisha is constantly having to ask her for money. Amy’s husband, Adam (Morgan Spector), is a war photographer; he seems like a nice, liberal guy, but, creepily, he can’t take his eyes off Aisha. The film is a brilliant diagnosis of a certain type of privilege and exploitation.

Aisha is working all hours to make money to pay to fly her own six-year-old son over from Senegal. But her American dream is curdling. At the start of the movie, we see a spider crawl into her mouth as she sleeps. At a swimming pool, she is pulled under the surface by a water spirit – this is the African water deity Mami Wata. The special effects were put together on next to nothing. Jusu had no choice, but is not particularly comfortable with the idea of big budgets anyway. “There’s a part of my brain that’s, like, what else could you do with a gazillion dollars? People are dying. I know that’s a buzzkill. And if I do ever get a $500m budget I’m going to sound like an asshole looking back at this interview.”

Perhaps the biggest horror of the film are the microaggressions. Watching key scenes between Aisha and Amy, it felt as if someone had taken my guts and squeezed them. “That’s good,” nods Jusu. “Microaggressions are hard to pin down because it’s not someone calling you the N-word. But they add up and they chip away at you. So, for me to convey that artistically was a challenge.”

She continues: “I’ve been navigating whiteness since I was born. My parents put me in predominantly white schools. I had to figure out really early: ‘Why is this teacher treating me like this? Is it because I’m bad?’ If you don’t get a groundedness at home, or have a centre innately, you can misconstrue these interactions as you being the bad thing. Your Blackness being the bad thing.”

Later in the afternoon, I speak to the film’s star. Diop tells me about an incident that happened the previous night, an almost freaky instance of life imitating art. In an uncomfortable scene in the film, her character, the nanny, is made by Amy to wear an expensive red dress at a party. The dress feels too tight, too revealing; Aisha doesn’t like it. But Amy twirls her around, cooing that the shade of red is perfect for her skin colour.

Life imitating art … Diop, pictured here in Nanny, has experienced being seen by others as someone who is not their equal.
Life imitating art … Diop, pictured here in Nanny, has experienced being seen by others as someone who is not their equal. Photograph: Courtesy of Prime Video

In real life, after the previous night’s premiere of the film, Diop was at the hotel getting a drink with her co-star Monaghan. Diop was dressed up in a backless gown. Sitting opposite them were two white women from Norway. While Monaghan was at the bar, one of the women asked Diop to stand up, so that she could take a picture of her. “I felt uncomfortable doing that. I said: ‘You can take a photo with me.’ The woman said. ‘No! I just want you to stand so I can take a photo of you. And turn around, I want to take a photo of the back.’” Luckily, Monaghan came back and joined her at this point and, together, they made a joke of the situation, shuffling around, posing for the photo.

Diop is wide-eyed: “It was that exact moment from the film of being treated as an object, something that exists for the delight or curiosity of a centred being, who doesn’t really see you as equal.” Diop sighs. “It was interesting.” Afterwards, the Norwegian woman chatted to Monaghan and her husband. “She never spoke to me, even though she wanted a picture of me.”

Jusu tells me about the long journey to make the film and a pivotal chance encounter with a sympathetic producer at a barbecue, whose mother was Jamaican American and had done domestic work. “She was like: ‘You finish the script. I’ll find the money.’

“I hung in long enough, and of course there were times …” She pauses. “My prime childbearing ages have been spent on this blind path, you know,” she says. “But I had to be laser-focused to get this.”

Our time is up. As we part, she gives me an appraisal. “This was really great. A really good interview. Definitely in the top three.” Like one of her students, I leave the hotel basking in the glow of her approval.

• Nanny is in UK cinemas on 25 November and on Prime Video from 16 December.


Cath Clarke

The GuardianTramp

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