Selah and the Spades centers around the peculiar world of Haldwell Boarding School and the five factions that run its student body: the Seas, Skins, Bobbies, Perfects and Spades. Each faction controls a certain aspect of the school’s illegal activity, from cheating, gambling and parties to keeping administrators totally unaware. The most powerful of these are “the Spades,” who are in charge of selling and providing the student body with illegal substances. They are led than by no one other than Selah Summers, played by Lovie Simone.
In her senior year, she enlists a wide-eyed sophomore, Paloma, as her protégé. As the school year progresses, however, more conflict and distrust occurs between the factions as they discover there is a “mole” in their midst. As conflict grows between the factions, Selah begins to distrust those around her, including her best friend, Maxxie.
The film is the directorial debut of writer Tayarisha Poe. When it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last year, it was met with positive reviews. Five months later, Amazon announced that it acquired the rights and also planned to develop a separate television series around the concept.
The film is being released during a sort of resurgence of the high school drama. With the successful release of films like To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, The Hate U Give and Love, Simon, more movies that center on the experiences of young people are being developed.
However, unlike the aforementioned films, Selah and the Spades feels more like a combination of The Godfather and Mean Girls, where students hold secret meetings in the woods to make huge decisions for the student body. Poe, who attended boarding school in her younger years, told IndieWire at Sundance, “I think it’s a very particular way of growing up particularly at that age and I wanted to try to communicate that and also just to express what having that amount of freedom at that period of time felt like.”
The story is mostly a character study of Selah. From the very beginning of the film, the narrator says, “but this story isn’t about the factions. Not really. It’s about her: Selah Summers and what she must do in order to ensure her legacy...”.
From there, we see Selah at her most powerful and weakest moments. Selah expresses herself in several monologues throughout the film, revealing her most inner thoughts to Paloma as she describes what it takes to lead the Spades. We also watch as she struggles to interact with her mother, who pushes her to attend a college she dislikes. When she’s home, Selah seems to lack the senes of control she easily obtains while at school.
In a another scene, Selah tells Paloma, “when you’re seventeen, you’ve got to grab on to that control wherever you can and hold tight for dear life because they always try to take it from you, don’t they?” Here, she looks directly into the camera, which seems to signify the deeper reasons for why she takes her position so seriously. It also foreshadows Selah’s worry that Paloma is getting to close to Bobby, the leader of the Bobbies.
Although the film’s trailer hints at a number of twists and turns, the plot builds slowly until the very last scene, when Selah reaches her breaking point in her trust of Paloma. While the film’s concept is very interesting, I couldn’t help but feel like I wanted a deeper dive into the world and background of each of the characters. There’s so much material that could’ve been expound upon. Does Selah change her ways in the end? Will she ever stand up to her mother and go to the college of her choice? Do the school’s leaders ever find out about the “underground” activities happening under their noses? There are so many questions left unanswered (though this does set up the story for a television series). The ending is also open-ended, leaving the audience to come up with what happens.
Despite this, the story does a great job of handling the themes of adolescence, control and the danger of too much power. While the story’s plot and ending don’t expand upon a lot of the characters or events, it makes great stylistic decisions. The cinematography, framing and camera shots serve the story well, using colorful lighting to reflect Selah’s mindset. The party scenes use natural light as well as shiny pastels. One scene in particular features Paloma and Selah talking onstage in the auditorium. The stage is set for a play with several red strings surrounding the two. The red alludes to the anger Selah feels when she finds out Maxxie was careless with their ledger.
The film’s cast is also a reason to watch. Lovie Simone, Celeste O’Connor and recent Emmy winner Jharrel Jerome portray Selah, Paloma and Maxxie amazingly as a trio despite the conflict between their characters. Jesse Williams and Gina Torres also make appearances as the headmaster and Selah’s demanding mother.
The fact that all of the lead characters in this film are Black is itself impactful, as we too rarely see Black teenagers in films where the central conflict isn’t gang violence or police brutality. It is even more rare for a dark-skinned actress to play the lead. It is also important to note that this story isn’t about race or discrimination. In fact, it’s never mentioned in the story.
Poe has a compelling and thought-provoking vision as a filmmaker, and I can’t wait to see more of what she does in the future. With stylish monologues and cinematography, Poe reimagines the high school movie genre to reflect modern times and the lengths young people go to find their own paths.
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