In Tayarisha Poe’s feature debut, she brings gang politics and turf wars to a Pennsylvania boarding school. Hadwell—the school made up of five factions— is in turmoil as a power struggle ensues amongst its key players. At the centre of the drama is the cool headed, confident, but fragile Selah (Lovie Simone), the leader of the Spades. Her reign is nearly done, and whoever is her successor will solidify her legacy or ruin it forever.
After years of building herself up as the Queen B at Hadwell, Selah finds herself in a difficult position. Her power is slipping for a number of reasons, namely it is her final year at Hadwell and an incident that occurred the year before threatens to expose a dark secret. By her side is Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome), her loyal right-hand man, and a new transfer student, Paloma (Celeste O’Connor), who has the potential of being the new leader of the Spades.
As the pressure mounts on Selah from within these treacherous boarding school walls, Selah must also contend with pressures from her mother (Gina Torres) and the future. There may be an urge to compare Selah to other high school mean girls, but she is very much her own character. Carried by Simone with grace and care, Selah is neither the protagonist or the antagonist of the story, although she is very much an instigator of drama. She is a complex young woman grappling with a reality of not having the power to assert herself. In Hadwell she is in a unique situation, being the leader of the all-powerful drug-dealing Spades gives her bodily and mental autonomy, something that her mother and society try to take away. Unlike the Regina Georges that populate teen dramas, Selah’s decisions come from a primal place deep within, self-preservation, whereas entitlement is a motivating factor for other mean girls. For Selah, the combination of unmitigated power and desperation to keep said power leads to dangerous consequences.
Poe’s approach to the story is near Shakespearean. The story builds to an inevitable breaking point for our characters. As they talk, revealing bits and pieces of their personalities and the past, a sinking feeling begins to grow. As I watched, I could hear Whoopi Goldberg’s voice saying, “You in danger girl” play in my head every time Paloma shared scenes with Selah (which is a lot). Bit by bit each character says or does something that adds to the tension, whether they meant to or not. Also, Poe often frames her characters in a way that makes us feel like we are out the loop, that we are walking in on half the conversation. Secrets and lies fill the empty spaces that surround Selah and her Spades. Everything is crafted in a manner to exacerbate the drama.
Poe also deploys an interesting film-making style that is highly stylised which emphasises the bougie and preppy life these privileged students have become accustomed to. The staging feels like a play, but the filming is as if it’s a documentary. Poe’s style creates an idea that this is not the real world. Everything is impeccably designed, crisp and clean, minus the occasional bloody beat down. However, Poe’s vision has us believe that these students have created a world and dynamic that is specific to them. This is their turf with rules and a way of life that they live by. Infractions like telling a member of the faculty anything is treated as a major transgression, a crime even, with brutal consequences. An order is meant to be maintained, and they will maintain it no matter the cost. Poe’s framing of Hadwell and its inhabitants allows us to fully accept this new reality.
All in all, Poe has quite the eye. Her debut is self-assured and unique. From her brilliant casting choices to how she deploys every convention normally used for crime dramas about mafias/gangs for a high school drama about teen debauchery and treachery makes for a compelling watch. Both she and her charming cast have very bright futures ahead of them.
Selah and the Spades is available on Amazon Prime on April 17th
by Ferdosa Abdi
Ferdosa (she/her) is a lifetime student of cinema. Three of her current favourite films are: Addams Family Values, Cinderella (2015), and Emma. (2020). On Twitter you can see her support women-led cinema, her ongoing love/hate relationship with Disney, her totally healthy obsession with Eva Green, and her great admiration for Guillermo del Toro.