Communism and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, STDs and It Follows, appropriation of Black people/culture, and Get Out — social issues and horror films go together like blood on a knife. Scary movies are the perfect avenue to engage with an audience while highlighting issues, societal fears, and prejudices. When done well, it can spark a discussion and invite a call for justice without soapbox preachiness. Or be a cautionary tale of a dreadful future. Two films that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2022, Nanny and Master, use horror to address the terror and stress that existing in a white supremacist society causes.
Microaggressions and gaslighting are everyday experiences among marginalized communities. The amount increases at intersections of oppression. For the protagonists in both films (Aisha from Nanny and Gail and Jasmine from Master), the supernatural horror of spirits and nightmares takes a back seat to the inescapable white horror of microaggressions, racism, biases, and harassment. Gail and Jasmine in Master try to navigate the education system in a majority white institution, while in Nanny, Aisha works as the titular nanny to a white family in New York in order to bring her son from Senegal.
In Master, the microaggressions start immediately for Jasmine (Zoe Renee), as the white woman at the college check-in laughs when she realizes that Jasmine got “the room.” She then debates with the other white student helpers whether they should tell Jasmine what is so funny. It is as though Black women do not exist in the face of whiteness. The discomfort puts Jasmine at a disadvantage that increases steadily throughout the film. When drinking with her roommate and their friends, alcohol spills on the floor; they ask Jasmine to clean it up. The horror in Master is, on its face, supernatural elements — the creepy story of a witch who claims a first-year student each year, the maggots. However, the film’s true terror is Black women’s invisibility, simultaneous hypervisibility, and the toll it takes.
White people are a danger — and a headache — no matter the setting in these films. Aisha (Anna Diop) struggles as an immigrant, working as a nanny to bring her son to the U.S. in Nikyatu Jusu’s Sundance award–winning film, Nanny. The situation quickly spirals as she struggles to achieve the American dream while navigating an increasingly negative, white space. Problems are set up gradually within the film, but discernible early on when Aisha’s employer (a white woman) seeks a hug. When Aisha gives her consent, and they hug, the wife seems to interpret this one approval as blanket permission to touch Aisha in the future. The way she feels Aisha’s skin later when she loans Aisha a dress is an apparent objectification, viewing Aisha as nothing else but a physical body. This behavior is also a microaggression as the action, intentional or not, diminishes Aisha to an object. There is no difference between the white women’s treatment and the white male objectification we see later in Nanny and throughout Master.
Though Gail (Regina Hall) is an adult, the new Master of a house within Mariama Diallo’s directorial debut, her experiences are horrifyingly similar to Jasmine’s. Gail invites the Masters of other houses to a get-together at her home, and they draw a comparison between her and Barack Obama. Similarly, when a bunch of white guys hang out in the dorm room, they start guessing who Jasmine reminds them of by naming many Black celebrities, including Beyoncé and the Williams sisters. White people get compared to stars based on features and personality. However, when comparing Black people, the only requirement is that they are Black, as though no other trait matters or exists. All this seems small on its own, but experiencing it daily takes a toll. Like Aisha, the white people around Jasmine and Gail minimize their existence to one-dimensional characters. None of them mean anything beyond what they give to white people — a body, a laugh, a shield.
Jasmine’s roommate is no better. Gail finds the roommate in the woods after two white men run off, and she offers to take her to the hospital. She declines and says she cannot go through that again, yet in the next breath curses Jasmine. She maintains white supremacy while also being a victim of the system she upholds. The white mom, Amy (Michelle Monaghan), in Nanny also behaves in this manner. She talks about her struggles navigating the workplace as a woman to find common ground with Aisha. Yet she rarely pays Aisha on time or in full, and Aisha has to nag Amy for her salary. That solidarity against “the man” disappears when a Black woman sounds the trumpets.
It is similar to how companies suddenly nitpick everything an employee does when they seek a raise because capitalistic structures are fashioned off those racist methods meant to curtail challenges to the system. Being kind at first, then angry, making them feel ungrateful and undeserving, is always the go-to for silencing others.
By the end of Master, Gail realizes that nothing has changed at her institution. In Nanny, Aisha realizes the American dream is an illusion in a society that favors whiteness over everything else. Though titles may have changed, the roles are the same. In these films, we have “the maid,” who cleans up white people’s mess, and the nanny who cares for white people and their offspring. But no matter their position, they are unable to make changes like calling out offensive or appropriative language or actions that make white people uncomfortable, yet that is precisely what needs to happen for real change to take root. Changes can be as minor as forcing oppressors to have to think about what they say or eliminate words entirely from their vocabulary; a minor discomfort, but many refuse to do it.
Films are stepping forward by highlighting the horror of being the “other” in a society while navigating cinematic supernatural horror. For some, which is worse is easy to decide, but for the “other” it is the day-to-day horror or a coin toss between them. These stories of harassment, microaggressions, and racial targeting are familiar for us, rooted in our daily life. But for white people, these stories can be educational as well. Seeing characters act in a similar manner to them is no surprise, but seeing both the Black character’s and Black audiences’ reactions is eye-opening.
Master and Nanny capture the stress, fear, exhaustion, and anger we experience daily. We are in a perpetual state of red alert, always on guard. Yet, through nuanced storytelling, we realize we are not alone. That someone else is going through the same, and though upsetting, depictions onscreen give comfort and let us feel seen.