“Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” are some of the words of Emma Lazarus’s poem, “The New Colossus” inside the Statue of Liberty – which has always been the main crux of the American pitch to immigrants. Here, you can make something of yourself by working hard – through those means; your family and those that come after you can prosper. However, we know many impediments come along with that (racism and exploration of labor, for starters). Thus, the “American Dream” can be interpreted as a story of caution or terror to some. Writer/director Nikyatu Jusu’s Nanny picks apart the preconceived notions about folklore into a film that speaks to the immigrant experience in a way that decodes the immigrant experience in many ways – from the burden of occupation to West African spiritualism and mythology.
In the center of Nanny is Aisha (Anna Diop), a Senegalese immigrant single mother working hard to bring her young son Lamine (Jahleel Kamara) over to America. For this to happen, she takes a job as a nanny to a New York-based white family who appears to be well off. However, appearances aren’t always what they seem. Right from the first meeting, an unspoken tension exists between Aisha and Amy (Michelle Monaghan), Rose’s (Rose Decker) mother. Amy hands Aisha a thick book of instructions and gives a scant feeling of warmness on the outside. Even given the smiles, there are cracks all along the edges of this American family photo. Amy and her photographer husband, Adam (Morgan Spector), are extremely cold to each other – their marriage is held together by thin strands. Aisha is caught in the middle of the one goal that drives her to push through this dysfunctional household.
But, if she could, Amy would scream – many of these insecurities manifest as Rose takes to Aisha’s parenting style. There’s a stark contrast between maternal instincts. Aisha is more in tune with what Rose needs – before her arrival, Rose would barely eat, but she takes a liking to Aisha’s jollof rice. Amy is far concerned with her career, but is mostly absent from Rose’s day-to-day development and often dumps those responsibilities on Aisha. (sometimes very last minute). Not only that, she is often late with Aisha’s pay, then slips in a little bit of gaslighting, trying to appeal to her being a woman in a “man’s world.” This and Adam’s process of going to third-world countries to chronicle the dissent and arrive back home in his life of luxury is a clever way of Jusu showing the audience the different ways in which immigrant labor is taken for granted.
There’s a sadness (and a bubbling rage) because Aisha has to be tethered to this lifestyle. Every paycheck she gains goes towards airfare for Lamine and her cousin Mariatou (Olamide Candide-Johnson) to experience so that her son can share the fruits of her labor. Unfortunately, that means she has to sacrifice enjoying her life to be taken advantage of by a crumbling family. Within one scene, Aisha is greeted by two other Black women who are nannies to white children. It speaks to the realization that many immigrant women often have to leave their children behind to become second mothers of children whose experience differs from your own. Thus, the American Dream is dangled like a carrot in hopes you will believe in it long enough to hope it will happen for you.
While there’s a big city immigrant tale on the surface of Nanny, Jisu also infuses legends from West Africa, such as Anansi the Spider and the Mami Wata (a mermaid water spirit). Some descriptions would categorize these figures in a darker sense, but Jisu utilizes them as story devices that are personal to Aisha’s heritage. Their more fluid nature, between the positive and negative, teases out the guilt Aisha feels taking care of a child while her own is in another country. Even as she finds some peace in a romantic relationship with a charming doorman named Malik (Sinqua Walls), his grandmother Kathleen (Leslie Uggams) provides context to the warnings various signs can bring.
Nanny’s atmosphere is tense, often using water as a mode of cleansing, lightning, shadows, and mirrors to boast. Anytime Aisha has a moment of comfort, cinematographer Rina Yang frames the shot to make her seem out of place. Why is it that so many domestic workers have to give up their whole world to gain a chance at seeing it again? Nanny shows the real tragedy is that uncertainty.
There’s a point where Adam discusses one of his photographs to Aisha of a revolutionary in Africa yelling in a backdrop of fire which he described as “powerful as Malcolm X.” Unfortunately, he died, and Adam was able to come back unscathed and tell that story. Maybe that’s the folklore here – some experience the American dream dipping their toes in the background of struggle, but can leave it. Others have to struggle, even when they escape it.