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Sundance 2022: Nikyatu Jusu on Nanny | Festivals & Awards

In your Meet The Filmmakers interview for Sundance, you said “Nanny” was a love letter to mothers who have been excluded from the American dream. What does that mean to you and how is it reflected in the film?

I’m not a mother, but I have a deeply profound love from my own mother and for the women in my family. It’s very matriarchal. The women are really powerful in my family. I’m a first generation American. My parents are from Sierra Leone, straight. So I grew up with a lot of strong, Black, African women around me. My friend group is full dynamic, smart women of color, and women in general. So I have always observed the ways that women have moved through the world, particularly women of color, particularly Black women. We don’t often have cinema that really celebrates that inherent strength, or that strength that has to be nurtured. These women are not often featured as the protagonist in a lot of films. I wanted to center a woman like this. There is a lot of trauma in this film, but I tried to juxtapose those moments with joy. So just across the board, like this is very much a nod to the women who tend to be extras and peripheral characters in the stories of mostly white women, and mostly privileged white women in cinema. I wanted to put a spotlight on some of those women who people often don’t think about when they’re maneuvering their daily lives in the world, or more privileged people don’t think about.

A later scene in the film that really struck me happens when Amy (Michelle Monaghan) comes home sort of exasperated, and she’s talking about how she can’t break into the boys club at work. And at this point, she hasn’t paid Aisha (Anna Diop) for a long time and the camera holds on her reaction and the look on her face. Can you talk about what that scene meant for you?

I think when you are a Black woman or a woman of color, who’s maneuvered whiteness, like whether it’s for work, or academia or whatever, whenever you’ve been like one of those people maneuvering a space where you are one of the only ones and you have to be in this space to make money, you learn to subdue your rage at microaggressions that accrue over the course of your tenure in these spaces. And you learn to kind of accept this self-centeredness that I think a lot of self-proclaimed white feminists tend to have. White liberal women who perceive themselves to be very pretty to the world. There’s a self-absorbedness that a lot of women of color have to maneuver in these spaces. And so in order to avoid becoming the angry Black woman, you know, in order to avoid leaning into this title that people are eager to give you, you tend to just learn to try to get what you need in these spaces without having to rage. And then that was a moment where, even though Aisha shouldn’t have had to endure all of these indignities, she still feels like she has to present this respectability in this space, and present herself as very calm and stoic.

Could talk a bit about casting Anna Diop as Aisha, who immigrated from Senegal as a child. What were you looking for in the casting of this role?

I started writing this, on and off, eight or so years ago, so I definitely didn’t know about her when I first started conceiving of the project. But over the course of the years, and when it started to become tangible that this was maybe going to be my first feature, I started paying attention to African actresses working in America. I stumbled across her, this was before she was on “Titans”. I just remember seeing her face. I didn’t know what her voice sounded like. I didn’t know her acting ability. I just saw her face and I earmarked her as someone who I potentially might want to work with. Then we went through the casting process once we finally got financed, and she was just always in the back of my mind. So I was rooting for her to kill it in her audition. Our casting director brought me so many amazing women and I really made it clear that I didn’t want to hear a bad African accent. When I say Africa, it’s a big continent, there are many nuances to the different accents and as a first gen American, my ears are perked to bad African accents. So I wanted someone who at least understood the authenticity that I was going for, and at least originated from some semblance of that authenticity. Anna killed her audition and she already had the look that I was going for. She’s very graceful. She’s very subtle. She’s athletic. I needed someone who could swim. Then on top of that, she’s Senegalese-American and truly understands West African culture. We have a lot of similarities between Sierra Leone and Senegal, even though it’s two very different countries. That was really important to me. She even has a scar on her arm that a lot of West Africans have from immunization. 

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