Nikyatu Jusu’s spellbinding Sundance-winning psychological drama marks Criterion’s latest streamer collaboration
The first horror film to earn the top laurels at the Sundance Film Festival, Nikyatu Jusu’s Nanny exquisitely blends fantastic folk horror and all-too-real terrors of immigrant exploitation and maternal anxiety.
Aisha (Anna Diop) is a Senegalese immigrant who takes a job with a wealthy Manhattan family as a nanny in order to earn enough money to bring her young son to the United States. The allure of the job quickly fades, however, as Aisha’s time and labor are casually exploited by employers Amy (Michelle Monaghan) and Adam (Morgan Spector); pay is deferred or forgotten, and overnight visits become common last-minute demands. Amy and Adam’s attitudes towards Aisha also devolve from respectful to dehumanizing, treating Aisha like an ornament or appliance. She’s dressed up in order to impress visitors, complete with unexpected and unwelcome touch; in the midst of Amy and Adam’s crumbling marriage, Adam comes on to Aisha–while Aisha resists, she can’t quit and jeopardize her income; and as Aisha becomes more of an active maternal presence in child Rose’s life, mother Amy’s microaggressions become vocally abusive lashes. In the vein of Ousmane Sembene’s Black Girl, the promise of a new, better life outside of Senegal quickly reveals itself to be an empty one–another tool employed by affluent white people outsourcing domestic burdens to those they treat as less than human. Jusu wryly updates these themes with a neo-progressive bent, with Adam and Amy’s indifference or cruelty masked by a veneer of socioeconomic blindness that only underscores just how blind they are to their own privilege.
Where Nanny shines, though, is in how the casual torment Aisha faces is augmented by supernatural forces rooted in West African Folklore. Anansi the Trickster Spider and water spirit Mami Wata hide in the shadows and waters of Aisha’s life, often accompanied by violent visions of drowning or repression. Their presence alternates between beguiling ambiguity and outright horror–yet the visceral emotions they evoke are always rooted in Aisha’s current anxieties. Jusu and cinematographer Rina Yang drench these horrors in contrasting, colorful tableaux, blending folklore by way of Dario Argento or Mario Bava. With this approach, Nanny richly expresses universal fears through the cultural specificity of its characters’ personal experiences–granting Western audiences not just an understanding of Senegalese nightmare imagery, but a deeper, emotional understanding of the angst and suffering of the experiences of immigrant mothers separated from their children.
In recent years, Criterion has seized the opportunity to diversify the film canon it has helped shape since its inception, reviving and re-contextualizing films from BIPOC and Queer filmmakers from Charles Burnett, Donna Deitch, and more. With Nanny, Criterion dovetails this cultural course correction with a continued cultural appreciation of Horror as a crucial societal lens, recognizing how films across the globe have the power to give a provocative voice to our deepest fears regardless of borders. Nanny is a thoroughly modern and terrifying film by a striking debut voice in American indie film, one with deeply unsettling imagery and dynamic performances by its female leads.
Criterion presents Nanny in a 1080p HD transfer in its original 2:1 aspect ratio, sourced from a 4K transfer provided by Amazon Studios and approved by director Nikyatu Jusu. The transfer is accompanied by a 5.1-Channel DTS-HD master audio mix, also sourced from the Amazon master. Both English subtitles and Subtitles for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing are available for the feature film.
In a continued collaboration with Amazon, Criterion’s presentation of this once-streaming-only film decadently preserves Nanny’s surreal, color-soaked imagery. The muted colors of Adam and Amy’s apartment pop against Aisha’s vibrant presence, while the multicolor neon lights of Manhattan nightlife bleed and merge with one another as Aisha hits the town with love interest Malik (Sinqua Walls). The accompanying 5.1-Channel mix champions the musicality of the film’s dialogue as it alternates between English, Wolof, and French, punctuated by skin-crawling sound design as Aisha’s visions take hold. Segments set underwater are notable here, with each speaker’s muted yet oppressive channel creating an immersive and claustrophobic experience.
- Truth and Terror: In a new program for Criterion created by Amazon, this is a 17-minute compilation of interviews with Jusu, actresses Anna Diop and Michelle Monaghan, and cinematographer Rina Yang discussing the intricate, intimate indie production of Nanny. Of particular interest is how Jusu and Yang delve into the dreamlike yet grounded cinematography of the film, down to the color palette bible used for the production.
- Suicide by Sunlight: A 17-minute short film by Jusu, about a Black vampire mother who must suppress her hunger for blood in order to regain custody of her estranged twin daughters.
- Trailer for Nanny’s theatrical release.
- Essay: Vulture critic Angelica Jade Bastien breaks down how Jusu skillfully employs tropes of fantasy and horror to interrogate the real-life terrors that BIPOC and immigrant mothers face as a reality of daily life, as well as how respite is found within the community protagonist Aisha is able to create for herself.
Nanny is now available on Blu-ray and DVD courtesy of The Criterion Collection.