African horror movie wins at Sundance festival

History was made in January when Nikyatu Jusu’s debut film, Nanny, became the first horror movie to win the grand jury prize in the dramatic category at the Sundance Film Festival. 

Jusu, a first generation American whose parents immigrated from Sierra Leone, became the second black woman to win the top prize in the festival’s 38-year history, following in the footsteps of Chinonye Chukwu, a Nigerian- American filmmaker who claimed the prize in 2019 with her prison drama, Clemency.

Atmospheric and visually arresting, Nanny tells the story of Aisha (Anna Diop), an undocumented Senegalese immigrant working as a domestic helper for a privileged New York City couple. Aisha hopes to save up enough money to bring her son over to the US. On top of the indignities meted out by her employers and the passive aggressiveness of American-style liberal racism, Aisha has to contend with disturbing visions that keep haunting her.

Recently acquired for worldwide distribution by Blumhouse and Amazon Prime Video, Nanny is rooted in the horror genre and thus is positioned to attract a wide audience when it is released. But it is the African inspirations and Jusu’s commitment to authenticity that give the film its unique identity.

In telling this culturally-specific story spanning two continents, Jusu is able to do something that is important to her: use filmmaking to bridge the gaps between Africa and the diaspora, particularly with African-Americans. 

“The traditional educational systems on both sides of the divide do not have the goal of bridging the African diaspora gaps,” she says. “And so individual black artists have to figure out if this is a priority. For me it is.”

Nanny’s Aisha is haunted by visions of Mami Wata and Anansi the Spider, two prominent figures in West African folklore. The mermaid-like siren, Mami Wata, is a complex figure that honours the essential and terrifying power of water bodies.

With origins in the Akan ethnic region of Ghana, Anansi the Spider is a trickster figure who uses wit and ingenuity to get through difficult situations. The transatlantic slave trade led to the propagation of this mythology in the Caribbean regions and in the southern Gullah culture of the US, where a similar trickster figure goes by the name Br’er Rabbit. Jusu incorporates these mythical elements and complications into her heroine’s very relatable quest for a better life, blurring the lines between the mundane and the supernatural.

Nanny also moves from high to low brow, finding time to pay homage to Nollywood film culture and the never-ending jollof wars raging among West African countries. In one memorable scene, an American character asks Aisha who makes the best jollof rice. He’s heard a lot from Nigerians bragging about their superiority. Aisha’s response is a sharp retort that Nigerians think they are the best at everything.

In some ways Nanny plays as a corrective to the tragedy of Ousmane Sembène’s Black Girl (La Noire de), that redoubtable classic of African cinema, as Jusu fashions a journey for her heroine that is more upbeat and ultimately hopeful even in the midst of tragedy.

From her unique perspective as an American who is also very much African, Jusu imagines herself as positioned to see not only the tension lines but the common connections between Africans and the diaspora.

She says: “We have to figure out how to be clearer about engaging with each other because it only benefits us to really understand where the other is coming from. And art has a role to play in this whether we see it clearly or not.” 

This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian. It’s designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.

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Wilfred Okiche
Wilfred Okiche is a Nigerian film critic based in Lagos. He has mentored film critics at the Durban International Film Festival.
The Continent
The Continent is a free weekly newspaper published by the Adamela Trust in partnership with the Mail & Guardian.

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