Director Tayarisha Poe is in a great mood. She has a good reason to be. She’s been getting positive reviews for her feature film, “Selah and the Spades,” which premiered last week on Amazon Prime. There have been lots of congratulatory emails, direct messages on social media and continuous praises from her peers. These are accolades that Ms. Poe, who is working on developing the film into a series, is taking in stride.
“I don’t seek out reactions, but it has been better that I could have expected, and it’s been good that people have connected to this film.”
“Selah and the Spades” follows a teenage girl jostling for power at an elite Pennsylvania boarding school and speaks to anyone who has survived the perils of high school. Refreshingly honest, it has something for everyone as it follows Selah Summers, played by newcomer Lovie Simone, while she navigates the pyramid of teenage politics.
“Everything is awkward at age 15. You feel awkward in your body and your emotions and in your brain and I just wanted to make people in that position feel a little less lonely,” shares Poe. “There have been so many people who reached out to me to say hey, ‘I was once a black girl in boarding school and I am so happy to see this movie.”
With a well-crafted, solid and clever script, Poe gives us an intriguing and fun film about high school life that never goes for the stereotypical. She immerses and educates audiences on teenage politics with a character study that shows how intoxicating power can be for a teenage girl who feels the threat of being denied it.
“Power is an addictive thing. I’m interested in the things people do in order to hold onto power, especially if you’re a person who lacks power, like a woman for example. What will you do to hold onto power once you have it? I am fascinated by that same question as it relates to teenagers, because I feel that is when you really start to understand not only the power that we have over other individuals, but the power that other people have over us. We wrestle with it at that age.”
At the film’s heart is an engaging performance by Lovie Simone, who captures adolescence with spontaneous fluency. “Moonlight’s” Jharrel Jerome plays her best friend Maxxie, Celeste O’Connor is a sophomore Selah grooms, Jesse Williams plays the school’s headmaster and Gina Torres rounds off the main cast as Selah’s controlling mother. In this film, Poe beautifully conveys the intelligence and will power of a young black woman that runs the most dominant faction group, the Spades, who supply students with narcotics and alcohol. With different groups of people controlling different parts of student life, the heads of the factions make sure everyone is kept in check.
Poe, who attended boarding school, grew up in a household full of avid movie lovers and clearly knows how to craft a solid narrative.
“My parents are huge movie lovers and television lovers too. ‘The X-Files’ was a big show in our home and we grew up on ‘The Matrix’. I have older brothers so all the movies they loved when they were kids impressed me. From ‘Labyrinth,’ to ‘The NeverEnding Story’, I was constantly surrounded by stories of all sorts, but the movie that influenced me so much in my youth was ‘Eve’s Bayou’ by Kasi Lemmons. “I remember watching it when I was really young. I understood her perspective and her feelings and the
way the story is so well told through her perspective and through the lens of her emotional growth. I was affected by that, as it felt like I had permission to be rebellious and permission to be extra and messy as a black girl and it was okay and it was expected.”
She had always wanted to make a feature and initially made an overture of this film in 2014. With writing labs, she was able to further develop the project and did wrestle with the idea of changing the title, given the word Spade is a contemptuous slang used to refer to a black person.
“I did think about the history of the word, but I don’t want to have to live my life where I can’t use words because those words have been used against me and people who look like me in a negative way. I can’t live my life like that and just thought, Selah would never change the name, so why should I?”
“Selah and the Spades” is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
Samantha Ofole-Prince/Photos Courtesy of Amazon Studios