A Universal Story About Identity And Survivalism
In a society that continuously rejects domestic workers, there’s something refreshing about a film where a pivotal turning point comes from an undervalued woman slamming refrigerated vegetables down on the counter in front of her employer who just shouted at her. Most stories about domestic workers portray them as people who just sit down and take it. When they do release their repressed anger, the purpose is always for the scene to be confrontational but never empowering. Nikyatu Jusu’s Nanny is a film that truly celebrates the cleansing fire of black rage that black people are expected to repress and explores survivalism so passionately and with such a sense of unease. You can call Nanny racially intimate if you must. But don’t call it repetitive.
Our heroine is Aisha (Anna Diop). She’s a young Senegalese woman in New York City who’s been in America for almost a year now. She’s recently started nannying young Rose (Rose Decker), the privileged daughter of affluent couple Amy (Michelle Monaghan) and Adam (Morgan Spector). She’s saving enough to bring over her son Lamine from West Africa and as his arrival date gets closer, she starts to become haunted by the presence of African Folklore that attempts to warn her of systemic injustices that will set out to destroy everything she’s worked so hard to build.
Nanny is absolutely a horror film but it’s not stereotypical horror. Nanny is a horror film the way Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan was a horror film. It’s psychological and like Black Swan, centers on a woman who unravels because the reality she lives in proves too much to bear. In Aisha’s case, her reality brings forward “Anansi” the mischievous little spider, and “Mami Wata” the mermaid water spirit.
As Aisha swims with Rose in an indoor pool she goes underwater and when she comes back up, everyone is gone and the outside sun has darkened. Mami Water slowly approaches Aisha and drags her underwater just as Amy’s actions threaten to drag Aisha under. Aisha also dreams of being in her bedroom at Amy’s apartment where she often has to spend nights. The ceiling starts pouring down rain and Aisha struggles as her soaked sheets become heavy and her face is buried in the bed. Other times, the showers will turn on with no one having touched them.
Water is a massive theme in Nanny. It symbolizes birth, rebirth, death, loss, motherhood, calm quietness, sensuality, and empowerment. Black history also has a lot of symbolism for water. Many slaves gave themselves to the water as they were being shipped over to Europe and America. Others were thrown overboard. Nanny navigates so much in terms of Earth and the details really show.
Aisha lies in the tub in a fetal position symbolizing peace but not all her experiences with water can be described as such. Climate disaster has only gotten worse and water has been choking, screaming, and sobbing at all of us that we’re destroying her body and her spirit. We continue to ignore her cries. This is very prevalent in Aisha’s dynamic with Amy. Amy continuously forgets (Or ignores) to pay Aisha what she is owed. She is the sole breadwinner of her family. Adam’s traveling profession as a war photographer doesn’t pay as much as Amy’s executive profession, most likely in law.
She comes home a sloppy drunk one night, having gone out to a bar with all the men at her firm, and whines to Aisha that it's such a boys club. “You know what it’s like,” she says with the odor of white feminism on her breath as though her and Aisha’s experiences as women line up precisely 100 percent. She tells Aisha she got a promotion and asks if she’s happy for her. Another time, Amy hosts a formal dinner at the apartment and forces, Aisha, to wear a dark red dress that is way too tight for her. “This dress was made for your skin,” Amy says with a wide smile.
Aisha’s dynamic with Adam is equally toxic. He’s a frequent adulterer and warns Aisha not to tell Amy when he kisses her and she pulls away. He also has all his professional photos framed in his office, most depicting racial violence and suffering. Aisha’s relationship with Rose eventually falls apart as well. Amy is enraged when she discovers that the tiny girl has a love for Aisha’s Jollof rice which Aisha has been feeding her. Amy shrieks that the rice is “too spicy” for Rose’s stomach and orders Aisha to stop feeding it to her. Rose pushes the glass bowl Aisha gives her of the food her mom requested onto the floor. She regrets it and helps Aisha pick up the broken glass.
Later that night, Aisha draws Rose a bath only for her to disappear. Aisha frantically searches the apartment for her and in the process cuts herself with a knife. She starts to bleed over the bathroom tiles and almost stabs Rose in the tub when she finds her in shock. She pulls Rose out of the water and they hug, both soaked in water, Aisha’s blood, and heartbreak. The next image is of the two of them in Rose’s bedroom. Aisha bandaged her bloody hand and Rose lies down next to her but not looking at her.
Rose: You’re mad because you HAVE to take care of me and not Lamine. It’s my fault.
Aisha: Rose, why would you say that? How do you know about Lamine?
Rose: …………………………………….. Anasai told me.
Aisha’s relationships with Malik (Sinqua Walls), the front desk clerk of Amy’s building and his grandmother Kathleen (Leslie Uggams) are gentle, tender, and loving and towards Nanny’s end, help her navigate a new future. Their loyalty towards her is very telling to systemic experiences they’ve had to endure as well.
One of Nanny’s most telling moments occurs as Aisha reads to Rose about Anasai and explains to the tiny girl that Anasai is so small and is navigating things that are so big. Sometimes, he’s good. Sometimes, he’s not but he’s always trying to survive. Nanny leaves us all wanting to hear more from Aisha as we become so invested in her and her journey. The portrayal of racial trauma may be too barbaric for our own good but what resonates is the humanity of the people Nanny serves. The film dedicates so much of itself to properly representing the experiences of black female domestic workers (Who truly are the people who keep America afloat) but ultimately, I found Nanny to be a very universal story about identity and survivalism in a country that keeps slamming doors in all our faces. The doors don’t slam to all of us for the same reasons but the slamming echoes loudly in all our ears and that echo will only continue to get louder.
Nanny. (n.d.). IMDB. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt10931784/