Like most well-written and directed films, Nikyatu Jusu’s debut feature, Nanny beautifully deposits visual breadcrumbs that enhance the themes of the plot. Within the first 30 minutes of the evocative horror, we see Aisha (played expertly by Anna Diop) slipping a copy of a children’s book with Anansi on the cover into the bookcase of the young, white child she cares for.
As a Black cultural critic, this type of detail is what makes what we do so fulfilling. It’s rare to see themes and motifs that directly reflect a culture outside the confines of white supremacy. I’m used to identifying “classic” motifs and symbolism in television and film that pay homage to European fairytales or Shakespearian plays, but my upbringing allowed me the privilege of knowing my culture too.
When I was a child my parents made a conscious decision to raise their children with as much representation and affirmation as possible. My Barbie dolls were Black, I watched television with Black characters, and of course, I was exposed to West African folklore like Anansi. The story of the trickster spider is as enmeshed in my consciousness as the story of Cinderella’s slipper.
To some, the scene where Aisha, who is a Senegalese immigrant, slips the book into the little girl’s bookcase could seem innocuous. Of course, a nanny would be putting a book away. But when I consider the significance of wedging something so African into the rows of presumably Eurocentric books, I can feel the tension of Aisha’s forced position in the lives of her bosses.
Jusu’s use of Mami Wata, a water spirit familiar throughout the African diaspora, is another example of the ways Nanny is an innately Black film.
As Jourdain Seales wrote for The Hollywood Reporter: “The film’s skilled usage of folklore is an inspired breath of fresh air in a horror landscape so often uninterested in the African diaspora. Mami Wata is an especially dazzling image, regal, sensual and foreboding all at once. At its root, Nanny is a story about the otherworldly power of cultural connection and the ways it may guide you when you’ve lost your way.”
While Seales, a Black critic, reviewed the film beautifully, the unfortunate reality is that the response after Nanny’s Sundance premiere has been clouded by a veil of anti-Blackness. One review on The Spool, which has since been taken down, described the movie as “stylish and engaging” but it “muddles its own voice too often.”
Granted, on the surface, this could be a valid critique of the movie. However, as this Twitter thread points out, the actual content of the article failed to demonstrate an understanding of the cultural themes and imagery. Contrarily, the author of the piece describes the imagery of Mama Wata as a “supernatural element” that essentially weakens the movie.
Not to be a stan on main, but the reviews of NANNY have mostly fallen flat in attempts to describe African/diaspora spirituality. Eg, this piece names Mami Wata but then says "supernatural elements" like a "mermaid in a swimming pool" derail the moviehttps://t.co/DUcca7kYX4
— Zoé (@ztsamudzi) January 26, 2022
After many people voiced their disdain, the editor took the article down with the note: “A prior version of this review contained inaccuracies about the film’s characters/content and otherwise did not need the editorial standards of the site. After further consideration, and justifiable feedback from readers, the editorial team at The Spool have chosen to retract this review. We deeply regret the error, and apologize to anyone affected.” It began a bigger conversation about how anti-Blackness and cultural incompetencies permeate all levels of culture.
Black art loses its power when it is controlled by a white narrative. It gains power when Black people are able to interact and engage with the work on our own terms.
Unfortunately, the opportunity to truly analyze and dissect these projects is often missed because critics, integral gatekeepers of cultural entertainment, aren’t always equipped to fully engage with the content. This has nothing to do with their skills as writers but instead, it reflects a need for diverse cultural critics.
Black cultural critics are the only cultural critics who can fully understand and engage with Black art. While this fact seems obvious, it is still not reflected in the newsrooms of major publications that are regarded as thought leaders in the world of entertainment. “If we have been made painfully aware of the lack of representation of people of color in the industries that tell us stories,” Elizabeth Méndez Berry said in an essay, “we should also be aware of the lack of representation of people of color in the places where we make meaning of those stories.”
Popular culture serves as tangible examples of which narratives are valued by the dominant culture and which are ignored and underrepresented. The cultural critic provides an analytical lens through which society can examine what these narratives mean and what we can take away from them.
On paper, cultural criticism can be seen as a tool to help fuel diversity and understanding, but the field has been so dominated by white, male writers, that the work often reflects a standard dictated by white supremacy.
USA Today reported that a recent study on film critics shows that “some 70% of female reviewers are white, 23% are women of color, and 7% have an unknown racial/ethnic identity, while 73% of male reviewers are white, 18% are men of color and 9% have an unknown racial/ethnic identity.”
As movies created by Black filmmakers continue to make it into the mainstream, it’s becoming clear that many non-Black critics are unable to truly engage with the work due to ignorance of Black culture.
White supremacy is not always blatantly violent; it’s not only white capes and hate crimes. Sometimes it is as simple as insinuating that white is the standard. By only supporting and awarding works of art created by white artists for a white audience, the white gaze remains firmly at the center of culture.