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'Nanny' continues the trend of African stories for American audiences

Courtesy of Amazon Studios

U.S. movie distributors have finally started realizing there’s a trove of great films about Africans and African immigrants. Many of the movies they pick up have a supernatural angle to them, which is probably an easy way in for American audiences—over the past couple years, we’ve seen Netflix offer the movie Atlantics, from Senegal, and His House, about a couple from South Sudan. And now Amazon has released Nanny, which won the top award at the last Sundance Film Festival.

The movie follows a Senegalese woman named Aisha, who’s living in New York and is hired as a nanny for the daughter of a rich white couple. Aisha has her own son who is still living in Senegal, who she wants to bring to live with her in the U.S. Of course, things don't go the way she expects, although they maybe do go the way we expect, at least to a point— the white couple seems pleasant enough, but are in fact self-absorbed and exploitative of Aisha. But naturally, there's more, and the movie brings in characters from West African folk tales, particularly Anansi the trickster and the water spirit Mami Wata. It becomes hard to say whether those characters are real and influencing Aisha's life, or whether they're a product of her increasingly stressed and fracturing mental state, although that's not really a mystery that needs solving.

I couldn't help but think of the great Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène, and his film Black Girl, while I was watching Nanny, as both movies follow a Senegalese woman employed in the service of a wealthy white couple, and we watch as her exploitation grinds her down. This film doesn't exactly quote Black Girl, but it's a reminder to me of how African filmmaking has the most trenchant social commentary I've seen from anywhere in the world. Nanny isn’t without its flaws— it can be unfocused, and there's a bit of a rushed ending. But the movie continues an emerging trend that we can hope will raise the profile of African stories for American audiences.

Nanny is on Amazon Prime Video.

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.