Amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, modern-day motherhood and the unequal burden of parenting that often sits with women has never been more apparent. However, many women, particularly women of color who come to this country, continue to raise the children of affluent white people. In Nikyatu Jusu’s feature film debut, Nanny, one caregiver grapples with the challenges of her position while striving for her version of the American dream

Aisha (Anna Diop) is a Senegalese immigrant finding her footing in New York City. Staying in Harlem with her aunt, Aisha, is thrilled to find work with a wealthy white couple as a nanny to their bright young daughter, Rose (Rose Decker). The opportunity will enable Aisha to send for her young son Lamine (Jahleel Kamara), who remains in Senegal in the care of her sister, Mariatou (Olamide Candide-Johnson).

Aisha and Rose take to one another immediately. However, from the moment viewers are introduced to Amy (Michelle Monaghan), Rose’s mother, who in equal measures absent and overbearing, there is a sinister tone cast over the film. As she continues to work for the family, Aisha’s nights and eventually her days become plagued with nightmares. She dreams of drowning and being suffocated. Eventually, she begins having visions of Lamine in various places across the city. Things take an even darker turn when Amy’s husband, Adam (Morgan Spector), returns home. The couple’s exquisite apartment becomes darker –literally, with Rose clinging on to Aisha for a sense of stability. 

Much of Nanny highlights the peculiar position of domestic work. There is an intimacy between Aisha and her employers since she’s practically living in their home. However, Jusu is careful to showcase the continued microaggressions that Aisha deals with at every turn. Amy tries to bond with Aisha over “feminism” but is also weeks late with her pay. Later she berates Aisha for feeding Rose jollof rice when the fridge is either filled with bland pre-made meals the child refuses to eat or rotting vegetables. Moreover, Adam, a photojournalist with a pension for shooting torture porn, is increasingly creepy and woefully ignorant.  

Despite her increased nervousness, Aisha presses forward with her work, She is ever more determined to bring Lamine to the States before his birthday. However, her nightmares and visions become inescapable. She dreams of Mami Wata, a seductive mermaid-like water spirit who seems to be warning her of something. She also dreams of Anansi the spider, the trickster known for taking down his larger rivals. While the haunting imagery is beautiful here, it’s unnecessary. Instead of elevating the story, the weight of the narrative gets buried underneath the symbolism. Diop and the tone infused in Nanny are strong enough to stand on their own without it. 

Though stunning, the vivid sequences in Nanny fail to create the genuine suspense needed for the powerful big reveal. Yet, there are other parts of the film that soar. Instead of confining Aisha’s world within the cold Manhattan apartment, Jusu highlights her life outside of her caregiver role. She dances with friends and family on a bright sunny day at a child’s birthday party. Later, she visits a friend at an African hair braiding shop, where the audience learns about the circumstances surrounding Lamie’s birth and her decision to leave him in Senegal for a new life in America. 

What resonates most in Nanny has nothing to do with the supernatural. Instead, it’s the scenes between Diop and Malik (Sinqua Walls), a doorman in Amy and Adam’s building. Though Aisha is hesitant at first, their courtship is bright, joyous, and sexy, alleviating the constant heaviness of the film. Their walk and small talk down 145th street and their blue-lit car rides could almost be another film in and of itself. Aisha even forms a bond with Malik’s prophetic grandmother, Kathleen (Leslie Uggams), who seems to know more about Aisha’s circumstances than she reveals. 

Despite its relatively short run-time, Jusu does a lot with Nanny. Still, the film fails to be as emotionally gutting as the setup suggests. Yet, amid a wealth of solid performance and some exquisite cinematography, the themes of motherhood, exploitation, and the falsehood of the American dream will undoubtedly spark conversation. 

Nanny premiered at Sundance Festival Jan. 22, 2022.

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