No matter where and what decade you attended, the pressures to succeed academically, be popular, and find your niche, are all ingredients of the typical high school experience. Tayarisha Poe’s directorial debut Selah and the Spades, which premiered at last year’s Sundance Festival and has recently become available via Prime Video, is the newest addition to the teen drama genre.
The story is centred around Black students, specifically Selah (Lovie Simone), a Black mean girl, and her position of power within the structures of Haldwell, a fictional prestigious boarding school in Pennsylvania. Right under the nose of the school administration, the students of Haldwell govern themselves under the rules set by the five student body factions: the Seas, the Skins, the Bobbies, the Perfects, and the Spades which establish a students role in the society of the school’s halls.
The Spades, the faction led by Selah Summers and her right hand Maxxie (Jharell Jerome) are responsible for the distribution of the drugs on campus.
At the start of the film, we are introduced to Selah, someone who is unapologetic both about who she is and what she wants. She wears long box braids in a ponytail with her baby hairs slicked-back and ultimately refuses to succumb to peer pressure.
Those around her are expected to accept and adapt to the way she sets things. Selah is used to being in charge and all of the power that comes with being a senior, popular, and in control of the vice most sought-after by the students on campus. Selah’s grip on power is tested, however, when her friend Maxxie loses focus on handling business and becomes distracted by a new romantic relationship. This puts a hindrance on Selah’s leadership ability in face of the other student factions and quickly we see what Selah is willing to sacrifice to hold on to the only control any seventeen-year-old girl has at this time in their life. When new girl Paloma (Celeste O’Connor) arrives at Haldwell, Selah sets her sights on her as her successor and quickly becomes Paloma’s mentor. It’s Selah’s relationship with Paloma that reveals all the ways in which Selah established her mean girl status. Paloma is quiet, inquisitive, and eager to win Selah’s approval, which Selah ultimately takes advantage of, getting Paloma to perform some of her dirty work and placing her in near-death situations.
Throughout the film, it was hard to view Selah as a likeable character. She was at many times cold, self-centred, and toxic to those around her, but in all the same ways she was extremely smart and confident. But I guess that’s the point. She is reminiscent of so many “mean girl” characters audiences have grown up watching in teen dramas: Sharpay Evans (High School Musical), Regina George (Mean Girls), Camille (Bring It On: All or Nothing). Young women emanating equal parts intelligence and fearlessness to get what they want by the means they choose within a society that doesn’t believe women are capable of doing so.
The best moments in the film are when Poe can zoom out from the politics of Haldwell that dictate these student’s lives, to remind the audience that it is teenagers that we are focusing on here. The difficulties that come from maintaining the social order at the boarding school is ironic considering the powers that the teens hold in their factions don’t mirror the power they do have in reality. Selah still has expectations she has placed on herself and by an overbearing mother and dealing with the same pressures of deciding whether to pursue college after high school, getting straight A’s, making friends, all while putting on a show of confidence and put togetherness in front of her peers.
Selah seeks to maintain control over her faction, which is the only place in her life where she has a say and people listen. Along the way she brings the most important and vulnerable people down with her, a telling reminder that no matter how much of a bold and outspoken girl that Selah portrays herself to be, she still needs guidance.
Missing from most of the film is a deeper context about Selah and her colleagues. Right from the beginning, the audience is thrown into the student politics of Haldwell. We are never given any glimpses into Selah’s life apart from running her faction and an allusion to a dark history with a past expelled student, which makes it hard to find a reason to want to see the film to the end.
In Selah and the Spades, high school hierarchies are dissected in a new way under the sharp eye of Poe’s direction. What Poe is successful at doing is making a film that is quietly rebellious while still incorporating the identifiable tropes of the teen dramas that have come before it. The film’s Black characters are allowed to create their space, set their own rules, and most importantly, to just be without having to justify or excuse their blackness to other people. It gives Black kids on screen the permission to live and make mistakes at such a young age in a way that the films of this genre have not previously.
Poe’s directorial style is stripped down (probably due to budget), and never glamorizes the lives of the students or the fact that Selah is basically the amateur Griselda Blanco of Haldwell. Largely the effectiveness of the films’ narrative lends itself in part to the actor’s strong performances.
It’s not until the end of the film that we see Selah show remorse for her behaviour, a character arc that at this moment in the film seemed to come without any set-up. Seemingly, it is the pressures of being seventeen finally start to make her crack and the audience is left with nothing but unanswered questions. The film was picked up by Amazon Studios to produce an original series written and directed by Tayarisha Poe so there is hope that we get some of the answers that Selah and the Spades left to the imagination.
Edited by Chichi Amaefuna