Nanny’s Director Speaks To Bringing West African Folklore To The Horror Genre In Her Debut Film

The best horror movies over the years have created our own folklore encompassing our worst fears – Michael Myers’ is pure, unstoppable evil or Freddy Krueger as our nightmares. For first-time feature filmmaker, Nikyatu Jusu, it was important to bring to life the mythical forces of West African folktales to tell the story of Nanny. As Anna Diop’s Senegalese-American nanny finds herself caught up with a new family and the distance between her own child, traditional stories find new spaces in the horror genre. 

Nikyatu Jusu, who won the Grand Jury Prize at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival early this year for Nanny, making it the first horror movie to receive the honor, spoke to CinemaBlend about infusing West African folklore into her movie. In her words: 

[There were] many drafts of the script, because you never want the folklore or the externalization of the horror elements to stray too far from the character's internal journey. And so, there were many iterations of the script, which is part of the reason it took so long, because you have this A story and you have this B story and they have to come together. But, I had some amazing mentors through the Sundance Labs – Kasi Lemmons, Michael Arns, who did the happy go lucky coming of age, Little Miss Sunshine, which is not traditionally who you would think of as a mentor, but he was just so brilliant in deconstructing my script and helping me to see the heart of what the story is. So I just had a lot of amazing support.

Anna Diop, who has risen to prominence with her role in Titans as Starfire, plays an immigrant nanny who is living in New York City and has left a piece of herself at home as she spends so much time without her son. As Aisha continues to struggle to assimilate in the United States, figures of her own culture begin to haunt her, including Mami Wata, a water spirit and “Anansi” the spider, which are both depicted throughout Nanny

Jusu was inspired to write Nanny with her own mother in mind, who was an immigrant woman who did domestic work when she was growing up. The first-time feature director had support from Sundance Labs, but was also able to accomplish a lot of practical effects on a small budget to portray her own visions of West African folklore. Jusu continued: 

We didn't have the budget for many VX elements as we wanted, but I am very proud of what we were able to do with Mami Wata. We did use a lot of practical effects, a lot of moldings, a lot of iterations of the tail, the color palette of the scaling. We worked with some amazing VFX teams to figure out how to blend the CGI elements with the practical elements. And so this was like a microcosm of the way that I want to work, but the mermaid figure, I think considering our resources came together in a way that I'm really proud of.

In an Instagram post, Nikyatu Jusu shared some behind-the-scenes looks at the making of Nanny, particularly with some breathtaking water filmography. Take a look: 

Following Nanny’s praise at Sundance, the movie received the attention and support from Blumhouse and Amazon Studios. Jason Blum shared in a press release that viewing the movie “moved” him because as a father he could “relate to the fear and terror around not being with your children.” Jusu’s debut shows a strong voice as more incredible horror movies from Black filmmakers are shaking the genre up, especially thanks to Jordan Peele forwarding things with his movies.  

Nanny is in select theaters now and will be available to stream with an Amazon Prime subscription on November 23. We’ll keep you updated on more upcoming horror movies here on CinemaBlend. 

Sarah El-Mahmoud
Staff Writer

Sarah El-Mahmoud has been with CinemaBlend since 2018 after graduating from Cal State Fullerton with a degree in Journalism. In college, she was the Managing Editor of the award-winning college paper, The Daily Titan, where she specialized in writing/editing long-form features, profiles and arts & entertainment coverage, including her first run-in with movie reporting, with a phone interview with Guillermo del Toro for Best Picture winner, The Shape of Water. Now she's into covering YA television and movies, and plenty of horror. Word webslinger. All her writing should be read in Sarah Connor’s Terminator 2 voice over.