Midway through Nikyatu Jusu's Sundance-winning debut feature, Nanny, there's a scene that's guaranteed to make every parent's heart skip a beat. An eerily compelling fusion of African folklore and American domestic horrors, the film follows Senegalese immigrant Aisha (played by Titans star, Anna Diop) as she secures a job as the caregiver for Rose, the young daughter of a wealthy Manhattan couple. Hoping to earn enough money to bring her own son to live with her New York, Aisha begins to experience strange visions that bleed over into her daily life. During an overnight stay in her employer's deluxe apartment, she enters a hallucinatory state and wakes up kneeling by the bathtub with a knife in her hand, seconds away from stabbing the girl she's caring for.
That sequence has its roots in real-life horror. In 2012, a Dominican-American nanny named Yoselyn Ortega fatally stabbed her two young charges in the bathtub of the Upper West Side apartment they shared with their parents. The case sent shockwaves through New York City, and Ortega later received a life sentence after pleading not guilty by reason of insanity. "The reason for the defendant’s actions lay within her delusional mind," her lawyer argued in her closing statement. Ortega also reportedly told police that she resented her employers, and was known to be facing financial difficulties prior to committing the murders.
Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment, Jusu confirms that the Ortega case was on her mind as she sat down to write the screenplay that became Nanny. "It was definitely in my folder of signs from the universe to explore these themes," she says. "You hear about stories like that at the end of the story in the news; you hear about it when the person shows signs of madness and violence … but you don't hear about the indignities that chip away at them. We don't just become violent in a vacuum. I'm always thinking: 'What is the backstory? Who is this person? How did they get here?' I don't think enough of us asked those questions."
To be clear, Jusu was as shocked as everyone else when she first heard the details of Ortega's crime. "It was terrifying," she emphasizes. And she understood that she had to be very careful in how Nanny presented its images of children in peril. In the case of the bathtub sequence specifically, she says that Rose Decker — the 5-year-old actress playing Rose — was naturally stoic and never flinched when Diop raised the knife in her direction. Decker's mother was also nearby to provide help when needed.
"She was the best stage mom you could have asked for," Jusu happily notes. "She was like, 'If you need to slather her in blood, let's do it!' She was all about the film. I was never going to exploit someone's child, so I created a safe space that allowed us to play in terms of what we did."
"I actually had scenes in the film where our team said, 'We can't do that,'" Jusu continues. "Like, 'We can't have a dead toddler in the opening of the movie.' We did shoot some of that, but it didn't make the final edit." Still, she was always adamant that the bathtub scene survive the editing process, even if it made audiences uncomfortable.
"Sometimes people need to be shocked into paying attention in a way that we haven't seen," the filmmaker explains. "The sad thing is that no children are protected, as is evidenced from school shootings. Kids are getting slaughtered in schools across all races. But if you are to pick a child to evoke emotion from an audience, it's usually a blonde-haired, blue-eyed child, you know? So that was something I was exploring in the navigation of not only Rose, but some of the more violent scenes I had in the film previously that didn't make the final cut."
Born and raised in Atlanta, Jusu grew up as the daughter of Sierra Leonean immigrants and remembers feeling caught between cultures in the same way that Aisha is in the film. "I'm lucky if people know what Sierra Leone is," she says, laughing. "I always have to be like, 'It's not a dish, it's a country!' But then also in America, no one cares what tribe you're from or what country you're from — you're Black. So I'm often navigating this in-betweenness in terms of my identity. Like a lot of first generation kids, I'm not African enough and I'm sometimes perceived as not being Black American enough, either."
Jusu captures that sense of her own in-betweenness in Nanny by creating two distinct visual spaces that Aisha occupies. When she's at home in her diverse Harlem neighborhood, Diop is almost always positioned in the center of the frame, as life swirls around her on the edges. But whenever she enters the apartment owned by the unhappily married Amy (Michelle Monaghan) and Adam (Morgan Spector), Jusu places her to the side. "She's literally off-center in their space," the director confirms, adding that Diop's costumes change in both settings as well. "When she's in her community, she's wearing lots of yellows, golds, marigolds and oranges. But when she's with Amy and Adam, she's wearing blues and desaturated colors."
That visual approach speaks to one of the driving themes of the film: the experience of being a Black person in a white space. "I've been in predominantly white spaces my entire life," Jusu says matter-of-factly. "Black immigrant parents sometimes think that their kids will get better resources if they're in a white school, and they're not always wrong. But they don't think about the spiritual, intellectual and sometimes physical trauma that enacts in growing up and not understanding why you're being singled out. It's a lot for a kid. As you grow older, you learn what a microaggression is, and you learn about backhanded compliments and condescension."
"I literally had a counselor in high school who was like, 'Are you sure that you think you can get into these schools?'" Jusu remembers. "And the weird part is that she was so blinded by her racism that she didn't realize I had the second-highest GPA in my class! I was like, 'Yeah, I think I can get in. The evidence is here.' So making Nanny wasn't something I had to study for — it's what I've experienced."
When it premiered at Sundance last January, Nanny became one of the few horror films to take home the festival's top award, the Grand Jury Prize. And Jusu is officially in the Sundance history books as only the second Black female filmmaker to take home that honor after Chinonye Chukwu, who won for her 2019 drama, Clemency. (Chukwu's latest film, Till, is currently attracting Oscar buzz for Danielle Deadwyler's starmaking performance.) Nanny was quickly acquired by Prime Video and Blumhouse, the company run by proven horror hitmaker, Jason Blum. But the film notably skipped the Halloween season in favor of an end of year launch, a strategy that speaks to its ultra-specific kind of scares.
"It's not about jump scares, and it's not literal body horror," Jusu notes. "It's about growing tension and discomfort that makes you want to crawl out of your skin at certain times." And even though there's a supernatural edge to the story, much of that discomfort and tension comes from Aisha's frayed relationship with Amy and Adam, who routinely neglect to pay her what she's owed and only seem to pay attention to their daughter when second-guessing her nanny's mealtime prep or choice of bedtime reading material.
"It's about the inequities that chip away at people's spirits and humanity," the director says, citing Guatemalan filmmaker, Jayro Bustamante, as an inspiration. "His film, [2019's La Llorna] spoke to a specific cultural story and folk tale, and I tried to do the same using African folk tales like Anansi the Spider and Mami Wata."
Jusu is sure to challenge horror conventions again as the director of the just-announced sequel to George A. Romero's pioneering 1968 zombie favorite, Night of the Living Dead. Although she stresses that the film is years away from a start date, she's already been working closely with screenwriter LaToya Morgan — whose previous credits include AMC's just-wrapped zombie series, The Walking Dead — and the duo have the full blessing of the late director's estate.
"It's less of a sequel and more of a contemporary remix," she says, amending the initial news reports. "I'm excited about what we can do with the zombie genre. I love movies like Train to Busan, and I think the best zombie films are not just about the excitement of zombies — running away from them or running towards them — it's the commentary the offer about where we are as human beings. Forgive the pun, but it's a genre that doesn't die for a reason. It's rife with allegory and symbolism."
Nanny premieres Nov. 23 in theaters, and Dec. 16 on Prime Video