My streaming gem: why you should watch Selah and the Spades | Film

I missed Tayarisha Poe’s startling debut feature Selah and the Spades at two 2019 film festivals – Sundance and Toronto – and kicked myself after each oversight. When I finally watched the teen boarding school drama on Amazon Prime, I discovered a mafia-inspired plot told from the unique perspective of a black woman, yet steeped in the pressures of black excellence. I loved Poe’s intelligent world building and the frankness she sketched her characters with. When Selah and the Spades premiered in April, amid the world ramping up against the Covid-19 pandemic, Selah’s cutthroat machinations, in some fashion, captured a reality that felt colder by the day. Unfortunately, due to the aforementioned pandemic, Poe’s debut seemingly went unnoticed by the general public. As I did last year, they’ve missed out.

Poe’s world builds thus: at the Haldwell boarding school there are five factions. They include the Sea, composed of teachers’ pets, the gambling-fueled Skins, the party-throwing Bobbys, the Prefects and the drug dealing Spades. The delicate balance between the competitive factions, which are not too dissimilar to the mafia’s five families, is often interrupted by the assertive Selah Summers (Lovie Simone). To fend off a conniving ecosystem, her only confidant is her best friend Maxxie (Moonlight’s Jharrel Jerome). In her senior year, and without anyone to carry on her legacy, Selah searches for an heir. And she believes she’s found one in the upright new transfer Paloma Davis (Celeste O’Connor).

Selah and Paloma meet when the latter is assigned by the school newspaper to photograph the spirit squad’s practice. Selah, the leader of the school’s spirit squad, explains to the young student, “They never take the girls seriously.” From Selah’s simple fourth-wall-breaking monologue, Poe coaxes her character’s fervent desire for autonomy. Selah’s faction, and her squad, where the girls decide their choreography and their uniforms – without considering the whims of parents and boys who decry their sexualization – offer her security. The need to control permeates into her romantic life, too. When describing her possible asexuality, she cites girls crying in the bathroom over heartbreak as a reason to avoid relationships.

Instead, Selah establishes her dominance through intimidation. Consider how she sends a message by ordering her goons to pummel a student with unpaid debts. Whenever she’s threatened, even if marginally, Selah reacts forcefully. For instance, she separates from Maxxie when he begins to date Nuri (Nekhebet Kum Juch). The rumor of a rat within the Spades furthers her ruthless behavior. She initiates Paloma by ordering her to assault the offender. And then there’s Selah’s former best friend Teela, who left school under mysterious circumstances. Jomo Fray’s evocative cinematography translates the moral ambiguity of this world by bathing his photography in shadows. His extreme angles foreshadow the later acute violence, yet actualizes the present insecurities tearing this young woman apart.

Because her seriousness is not fueled by a disdain toward her fellow students. It stems from the pressures of black excellence. Consider Selah’s mom (Gina Torres), who asks “what happened to the other seven points’’ when she learns her daughter received a 93 on her calculus test. Selah’s “setbacks” are totemic of her mom’s failed marriage, where every less than perfect score, to her mom, further identifies Selah with her disappointing father. Selah’s stress is also worsened because black women must fight in a world where their success is considered an exception, not a rule. It’s the need to succeed, to appease her mother, to transcend stereotypes, which not only pushes Selah to accept her mom’s preferred college, but causes her to betray Teela, to denounce Maxxie and to turn on Paloma. Because Selah can’t fathom not being the only black person in the room.

Poe could easily have contented herself with a black Clueless or a black Heathers, and been rightly lauded for her representational strides. But she upended the teen subgenre by intermingling it with allusions to mafia movies instead. Poe’s ability to tease assured performances from relative newcomers Simone and O’Connor, and to interweave a beguiling appearance from Jerome, gives Selah and the Spades an undeniable allure. Amazon and Poe’s commitment to adapting the film into a television series should come as no surprise.

But it’s Paloma frantically running into the night, driven by drugs and betrayal to danger’s precipice, that so struck me in April. I couldn’t shake how closely, amid the uncertain lockdowns, how much the moment’s terror whispered to me. Considering the recent and surreal presidential debate, the paralyzed economy, Covid’s unending specter, and a summer reinstituting Black Lives Matter’s importance, the arresting climax still rings true today.

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