Nikyatu Jusu’s parents loved white Jesus. They sent her to a Christian high school in Atlanta, where she was one of few Black students. “A lot of the indigenous beliefs about spirituality and folklore got erased,” she says. “My parents are of the generation where it’s like Christianity—you know, white Jesus. And they even put me in a white Christian high school in Georgia, a private school. Thank god I’m tenacious because I’m like, y’all trying to give me a nervous breakdown.”
(After this story was published, Jusu tweeted that she was commenting on the imperialistic use of Christianity as a tool of control and not her parents’ religious beliefs.)
In college, when Jusu started researching her West African roots, she found herself wondering why her hyper-literary Sierra Leonean family hadn’t introduced her to the folklore that contributed so much to their birthplace’s culture. Jusu assumed they weren’t familiar with it, until she probed further.
In fact, Jusu’s parents knew of both the African deities that now appear in her debut film, Nanny, which won a top jury prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, secured a Prime Video distribution deal reportedly worth $7 million, and this week earned Jusu an Independent Spirit Award nomination. (It hits Amazon on Dec. 16, following an Oscar-qualifying theatrical release.)
The deceptive water spirit Mami Wata and the trickster spider Anansi were symbols of resistance during the Atlantic slave trade, and they are creeping specters in Nanny. “Why did I have to pull this out of you?” Jusu wondered when her folks started recounting Mami Wata and Anansi’s significance. “Because you’re too busy talking about Christianity.”
Nanny uses horror trappings to explore that same Westernization that many immigrants experience. Jusu’s protagonist, Aisha (Anna Diop, best known for Titans and 24: Legacy), is an undocumented single mother from Senegal who has moved to New York and taken a job nannying for a young girl on Manhattan’s tony Upper East Side. The gig is a means to an end. Aisha wants to establish a life in the States so her 6-year-old son can join her.
Their lack of proximity had a distancing effect, and being subjected to the domestic melodramas of her white employers (Michelle Monoghan and Morgan Spector) doesn’t make Aisha feel any homier. Her spiritual claustrophobia quickly turns outward. The ominous sounds, slithering shadows, and disruptive nightmares position Nanny just shy of a haunted-house movie.
Born and raised in Atlanta, the 40-year-old Jusu is finally receiving the Hollywood calls she has long worked for. Most fresh-faced directors have to wait for box-office returns or art-house prestige to vault their careers, but Jusu’s phone started ringing before Nanny even opened. George Romero’s estate approached her, via a referral from King Richard director Reinaldo Marcus Green, about directing a sequel to Night of the Living Dead written by LaToya Morgan (The Walking Dead).
“Nikyatu is a dear friend and fellow NYU alumnus,” says Green, who couldn’t take on Night of the Living Dead himself because he’s busy with a Bob Marley biopic. “She was the first person I thought of, as her film Nanny explores similar themes and sensibilities. She’s uniquely qualified and precisely the right director for the reboot of this amazing property and I can’t wait to see what she does with it.”
More recently, Suicide by Sunlight, a Black vampire thriller about motherhood that’s one of five short films Jusu has made since 2007, scored a feature-length green light from Jordan Peele’s production company, Monkeypaw. (Sunlight and some of Jusu’s other shorts are currently available to stream on The Criterion Channel.)
At one point, Jusu thought she’d become a biomedical engineer. Despite her love for cinema and a childhood spent reading Octavia Butler and Toni Morrison, she didn’t see herself as an artist, until she took a screenwriting course as an undergraduate at Duke. Assuming it would be an easy elective, Jusu was surprised when her professor told her she had a knack for the craft. “The beauty of stumbling into your passion is that it just puts you in a chokehold,” she tells The Daily Beast’s Obsessed during the Austin Film Festival, one of many promotional stops Jusu has made on behalf of Nanny since its Sundance premiere in January.
Jusu wrote the Nanny script “on and off” for roughly eight years, combining the folklore she’d explored during college with the story she had in her head about a West African immigrant caring for a privileged American kid. She poured elements of her own mother and aunt into Aisha, whose supernatural visions intensify as she feels further and further from home. Some of the film’s tension comes from the way Aisha’s bosses can seem gracious at one moment and troubling the next. Are they trustworthy? Her mind may be playing tricks, but she knows enough to stand up for herself when she doesn’t get paid on time.
In Nanny’s early stages, Jusu thought she might try to cast nobodies off the street, an approach that directors Chloé Zhao (Nomadland, The Rider) and Sean Baker (The Florida Project, Tangerine) have perfected in recent years. Potential financiers weren’t interested. Even if most viewers aren’t familiar with Mami Wata and Anansi, Nanny employs enough horror conventions to merit the audience that known actors can attract. Still, Jusu was determined to find the type of lead actress she wanted.
“I probably sound like an asshole after a while, but I don’t care about the Hollywood A-list system,” Jusu says. “It sucks so much out of your budget, especially as a rising filmmaker who’s a quote-unquote ‘no-name filmmaker.’ Like, somebody’s asking for $4 million? That’s three-fourths of my budget just for you to show up for two weeks to be an antagonistic force. Anna Diop struck the perfect balance of authenticity and having a body of work, with Titans, that felt a little mainstream.”
Jusu’s indifference about major celebrities may need to evolve now that she’s attached to higher-profile projects. She sees herself as a “disruptor,” but it’s hard to work in Hollywood without adopting the industry’s priorities. Monkeypaw has a distribution deal with Universal Pictures, and a top-tier studio cares a lot more about bankability than the average Sundance indie. That’s fine by her, as long as the stars in question are willing to audition and “go through the process,” which includes chemistry tests, rehearsals, and a level of collaboration that isn’t always a given.
When the initial reviews of Nanny were published, some critics—predominately white ones—questioned whether the African mythology in Aisha’s periphery was undercooked or unnecessary. Such responses only affirm Jusu’s commitment to movies that center Black perspectives. She could have included other spirits, but her visual effects budget would only allow so many. In choosing Mami Wata and Anansi, she adopted the same approach as Guillermo del Toro, which is to humanize monsters so they say something about the world at large. They are there to warn Aisha of danger.
Night of the Living Dead and Suicide by Sunlight will keep Jusu, who lives in Baltimore and teaches film at George Mason University, firmly planted in the horror genre. But the Basic Instinct fan in her is equally interested in psychosexual thrillers and anything “dark.” She would only draw the line at a romantic comedy or “straightforward drama.” This is someone who knows what she wants. Because so much of Hollywood has already anointed her, she seems likely to get it.
“I’m just really compelled by everyone’s shadow side because we live in a society, especially in the South, where everything’s about civility and respectability and smiling at the grocery store, even though this person would lynch me tomorrow,” Jusu says. “I’m intrigued by the truth versus the veneer.”