This story contains spoilers for Prime Video’s Nanny. As seen in the latest additions into the Black horror canon, the scariest thing in the world can sometimes be people themselves — specifically in the way their fears can manifest into a terrifying reality. Sundance Grand Jury winner Nanny, Nikyatu Jusu’s quietly unsettling film recently released on Friday (16th December) on Prime Video, explores this theme further through the psychological decline of a young mother in frantic pursuit of the American dream.
Nanny plays out in three very different settings: the sprawl of New York City’s elite Upper East Side, the lively neighbourhood of Harlem, and the warmth (and pain) of Senegal worlds away. Connecting these spaces is the story of Aisha (Titans’ Anna Diop), a young Senegalese immigrant who has recently arrived in the United States. Like so many immigrants, she’s travelled thousands of miles from her home in search of what she believes will be a better life. Not just for herself, but also for Lamine (Jahleel Kamara), the adorable son waiting for her back in Senegal.
In order to earn enough money to send for Lamine to permanently live with her in the States, Aisha takes a job as a nanny for a wealthy white family. As a mother, childcare is something she’s good at — something that comes naturally to her even, even — and Aisha’s young charge Rose is a delight to care for. Rose’s parents, Amy (Michelle Monaghan) and Adam (Morgan Spector) are a different story; in addition to the underlying tensions of their marriage spilling over into the rest of their family life, Amy and Adam can’t quite agree on how to compensate Aisha fairly for her time taking care of their daughter, making her salary inconsistent and unsustainable.
But it’s not just the uncomfortable workplace dynamic that makes Aisha’s job harder. She’s literally being haunted everywhere she goes. Initially, it’s hard to pinpoint what or who exactly is worrying Aisha — the unease, heightened by Nanny’s torturous score and sound effects, shows up in different ways. The steady rainfall of water in an unoccupied shower. A shadow of a spider crawling up the wall. A mirror reflection that isn’t quite right. Every day that passes at Aisha’s new gig in the Upper East Side becomes increasingly grim for the young woman, and the most frightening thing is that while she doesn’t know what’s going on, a part of her can feel deep down that it may all be connected to her son Lamine — rather, to the growing physical and emotional distance between them.
Anyone who’s ever left family behind oceans away knows the feeling. Stuck in different time zones with miles stretching between them, Aisha can feel Lamine slipping from her fingers each time their video chats freeze or disconnect. That pain radiates when she’s around other children Lamine’s age; every gapped grin on the street reminds her of the little face peering at her through the phone. Even with the knowledge that their separation is only temporary, being apart from her son sets Aisha on edge. Something is wrong.
After a start that feels like a human drama sprinkled with some otherworldly elements, Nanny takes a sharp turn into the supernatural at the halfway point as Aisha’s paranoia becomes actualised. When she connects romantically with Malik (the ever-charming Sinqua Walls), a handsome single father who also works in her employee’s apartment building, Aisha gets an invite to meet his grandmother Kathleen (Leslie Uggam). The women have an instant connection, bonding over their shared love for Africa, as Kathleen spent much of her time travelling the continent, but the most striking aspect of their conversation is the grandmother’s knowledge of magic and African mythology. A priestess of sorts herself, Kathleen can sense something supernatural hovering about Aisha — a familiar spirit or presence — and tells her to be conscious of the message it may be trying to send.
“[These spirits] are figures of survival and resistance for oppressed people,” Kathleen tells Aisha. “They challenge the dominant order, subverting it through chaos, anarchy, creative energy. They refuse to be ruled by the human or the divine…you should be asking what they want from you.”
Aisha doesn’t necessarily believe in magic, but that doesn’t keep it from following her around, choking her in her waking and even in her sleep; she dreams frequently of being submerged in water and drowning. As it turns out, there is a force circling about our protagonist: a water spirit colloquially known as mami wata has been trailing her even in New York City, warning her about what is to come. And on the other side of that warning is Aisha’s worst fear realised: Lamine drowning without his mother to save him.
Jusu establishes Nanny’s premise fairly early and subsequently spends most of her time laying out the devastating toll that Aisha’s time as a nanny takes on her well-being, specifically on her identity as a parent. This tale, which Jusu revealed in an interview was inspired in part by her own mother and by the storytelling of Jennifer Kent’s The Babbadook, is about a mother’s dreams — and the ways in which pursuing them can quickly become her worst nightmare. Nanny is undeniably a supernatural horror story, with Jusu’s very intentional utilisation of some eerie diasporic spiritual elements informing much of this disquieting plot. But its horrors are as practical as they are shadowy, reflected in the draining nature of Aisha’s work. It’s not just the water spirit that is chasing Aisha at every turn; there’s also a permanent fatigue threatening to overwhelm her. Hustling over time to make ends meet is exhausting. Getting exploited by white people is exhausting. Not being able to be an active mother to her own child while taking care of someone else’s is exhausting. Here, we see the metaphysical and the physical begin to blur into one another; it’s almost as if Aisha's chilling visions are a manifestation of the emotional undoing that has resulted from this painful new chapter of her life.
Are the creepy shadows and dreadful nightmares hard evidence of the mami wata’s looming presence, or are they projections of Aisha’s fraught emotional state? That question — as well the fact that there’s no simple, straightforward answer to it — may actually be the real horror here.
Nanny is now available for streaming, only on Amazon Prime.