Written and directed by Tayarisha Poe, Selah and the Spades is a stylish, emotionally-charged feature film debut. Subtle, multidimensional, and thought-provoking, the film is a smart and subversive foray into the world of Selah Summers (Greenleaf’s Lovie Simone).
The film begins with an introduction to the five factions that make up Haldwell School, a prestigious east coast boarding school. The factions essentially control the school’s underground, running the show behind the scenes and providing the students with a multitude of products and services. Selah runs the most powerful faction, the Spades, and is responsible for buying and selling drugs, alcohol, and other contraband. To maintain her position, Selah is often stuck between being feared and being liked as a leader — a line that is further complicated by the arrival of Paloma (Celeste O’Connor), a new student whom Selah takes under her wing.
Selah and the Spades isn’t a run of the mill coming of age story; it’s far more complex and dynamic, with a sophisticated eye for detail and depth that showcases Poe’s strong point of view. The film is an intimate character study, an intricate exploration of the fear of failure, living up to unattainable expectations, and leaving behind a legacy. Selah, above all else, is afraid of being erased, worried that her name will be tarnished and forgotten.
If she can’t be the best, then what is there left to be? Who will remember her after she graduates from Haldwell if she’s so easily replaced by someone arguably more likable and less threatening? Most crucially, perhaps, how does she maintain and control her image if she lets down her guard?
Selah is unapologetic in her leadership. She’s assertive in her control over the Spades and is willing to throw away friendships to keep a grip on her position. At the same time, her actions and ego keep people at arm’s length, isolating her deepest emotions and insecurities in favor of a strong facade. The exclusion of others includes Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome), who acts as more of an associate than a friend and whom Selah alienates instead of lets in. Selah demands perfection because perfection is expected of her in every aspect of her life and she takes extreme measures to stay on top, spiraling to keep the only thing she believes she has left. Selah is deeply flawed and oh so human, which makes the exploration of her character all the more fascinating and Lovie Simone absolutely nails the portrayal.
Poe infuses the film with so much style and eloquence, conveying Selah’s every emotion and thought process with nearly intrusive close-ups that offer a brief window into her soul. She’s able to capture Selah’s interiority, perfectly articulating that which the character never says aloud. The factions work to create and escalate tension between Selah and her peers, allowing the story to deep-dive into the politics of high school, all while Poe navigates her way through the teen dynamics, the slippery slope of power, and fortitude in the face of unflinching truth. In short, Poe is a filmmaker to keep an eye out for.