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‘Nanny’ Uses Supernatural Horror to Convey the Guilt Felt by a Migrant Domestic Worker

"Guilt can kill you," says director Nikyatu Jusu, whose psychological thriller features mythological monsters and affluent white bosses.

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As a Filipina American, I’m intimately familiar with cinematic portrayals of domestic work, and was initially skeptical that Nikyatu Jusu’s psychological thriller Nanny could feel original. After all, it begins like most narratives in the genre: A young Senegalese woman named Aisha (Anna Diop) lands a well-paying job with an affluent American family to take care of Amy and Adam’s (Michelle Monaghan and Morgan Spector) daughter, Rose (Rose Decker). Before her first day, her friend kindly but bluntly advises her not to fuck it up. For the most part, the gig fares well for care work: Rose is enamored with Aisha, she’s quick to pick up her French lessons, and she loves the Senegalese food Aisha cooks for her.

But as Jusu told me in an interview, Aisha finds herself struggling within this white patriarchal setting. “Cis, hetero, white maleness is at the top,” she said. “That leaves the rest of us to try to survive a system that was never intended for our survival.” The illusion of a job that could inch Aisha closer to the American Dream—and the goal of bringing her son Lamine to the States from Senegal—crumbles almost instantaneously.

During overnight stays at her new employers’ home, Aisha begins to experience apparitions, wherein she feels like she is being drowned in her bed; during others, she dreams of being attacked by evil mermaids, snakes, and the mythical giant spider Anansi, the protagonist of one of the Ghanian books she reads to Rose at bedtime. As I watched Aisha become engulfed in literal darkness—submerged underwater, towered over by shadows, and threatened by what lurks in dimly lit rooms—it was hard to imagine that she would ever land on her feet. Even in the light of day, things at her job become increasingly bleak: Her pay is backed up weeks at a time, with only the hazy promise of compensation. Most worrisome of all, whenever she calls home to Senegal, Lamine isn’t around to speak with her. She succinctly sums her predicament up on a phone call with a friend: “They own me. I have no life.”

“Nanny” is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

While her situation is obviously constricted by her class and race, the weightiest toll for Aisha is an emotional one. Guilt—of being far away from loved ones, of missing out on important milestones, of not being able to provide an immediate form of care—is not uncommon for those working overseas to support their families, especially for those who are mothers. We see Aisha struggle through this plenty, particularly when she has recurring visions of Lamine at the beach, his back turned to her, a constant reminder of the limitations of her own agency. The ubiquity of her visions, whether of Lamine or of mythical monsters, distorts her sense of reality, and as a viewer, I began to doubt mine too. Where do the nightmares of her imagination end, and where do the real horrors of her life begin?

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Jusu used guilt to create that sense of overwhelming confusion. “It is a universal feeling, and it can eat you up internally from the inside out,” she said. “Guilt can kill you.” One might say that Jusu means this literally. For Aisha, her guilt becomes a literal and visceral haunting, a danger that is constantly threatening to wield itself against her, the visitations disrupting her ability to go about her daily life.

What’s struck me most about Nanny is how the material gripes of Aisha’s job are one and the same with the supernatural darkness that envelopes her. By utilizing the genre of horror to tell an otherwise typical migrant story, Nanny adds a fresh, albeit unsettling, element to preexisting canon, creating new senses of urgency and anxiety with which the audience must grapple. For Aisha, her conflicting emotions—many of which she has to suppress for the sake of doing her all-consuming job—manifest into literal monsters that she must either hide from or face. At different points throughout the movie, it’s unclear whether these apparitions are meant to simply scare Aisha or push her to better listen to her intuition.

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But this ambiguity is exactly Jusu’s point: “The most interesting part of storytelling is often in the gray area,” she told me. That’s especially apparent with Anansi the spider, an “agent of chaos” and trickster who intrigued Jusu because he “fights violence with violence” and is eager to “burn shit down.” In some ways, he’s antithetical to how migrant domestic workers are perceived—as always keeping their heads down in subservience and gratitude—pushing Aisha to move past her guilt and into the realm of rage and self-advocacy. “I think we’re navigating a society that really wants people to be oppressed quietly,” Jusu explained. “And so these figures of resistance were just ways into navigating a character when she needed strength.” 

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Aisha’s story concludes with an earth-shattering discovery that not only exacerbates her guilt, but compounds it with more grief. In its wake, many of Aisha’s supernatural encounters make sense. All along, the monsters that she feared were actually the forces trying to warn her of the dangers ahead, urging her to trust the part of her gut telling her something was deeply wrong. Towards the end of the film, when Aisha tries to succumb to her grief, it’s the very same creatures who once scared her who save her, urging her to fight for her survival in a country—and amidst a tragedy—designed for her demise. In other words, they’re trying to show her how to live in the gray area.

It makes sense then, that the movie ends on a note of hopeful uncertainty, where the road ahead for Aisha isn’t clear cut. When I asked Jusu whether Aisha has the potential to attain the American Dream, her answer was ambiguous—after all, she told me, the American Dream is just that: a “mythical dream.”