Tayarisha Poe Doesn’t Need You To Love Selah from Selah & The Spades — But You Might See Yourself In Her
Clueless, Lady Bird, Sixteen Candles, Booksmart, Mean Girls — all films exploring the trials and tribulations of being a teenage girl. In each of those movies and the countless others that occupy the beloved coming-of-age genre, a young girl tries to come to terms with life as she knows it. She doesn't always do the right thing, but she's doing the best that she can to create the future that she wants, and we can only respect her for it.
Interestingly enough, many of the films in the genre follow the stories of young white people. Rarely do we get to see non-white teens just being kids and grappling with everyday growing pains. With the exception of recent projects like To All the Boys I've Loved Before and Dope, the narratives that centre on teens of colour too often present their protagonists as being burdened by trauma, poverty, or racism.
Not so in the expanse of filmmaker Tayarisha Poe's imagination. In the Philadelphia-based writer and director's new film, Selah and the Spades, a young Black girl enjoys the spoils of omnipotence as she rules the halls of her private school with an iron fist. No suffering under systematic oppression, no cliche stereotypes or tropes. Just a captivating story about power play in high school.
"I really did not want to tell another story through the lens of white supremacy," Poe told Refinery29 ahead of the release of the film. "When we make media about non-white people, we tend to fall into this dichotomy of okay, either this person is going to be a model minority or they're going to be really suffering. I couldn't make a movie about the experience of Black kids in relation to white supremacy because that's not how we think about ourselves. We see ourselves as fully realized human beings living our own lives."
"[Black] kids aren't usually the highlight," added the movie's star, Lovie Simone, thoughtfully. "We never really get to see the story through our eyes."
Selah and the Spades beckons us into the dreamy world of the fictional Haldwell School, a boarding school tucked away in the lush greenery of Pennsylvania. Haldwell is run by five factions — each with its own unique purpose within the complicated ecosystem of the academy — but really, senior Selah Summers (Simone) is the queen bee reigning over it all from her iconic rattan throne.
For years, Selah and her best friend Maxie (When They See Us star Jharrel Jerome) have overseen the underground sale and distribution of drugs and alcohol on campus as heads of the Spades faction. Approaching her last days as the leader of Haldwell's most fearsome cohort, Selah wrestles with the best way to cement her carefully crafted legacy. Our protagonist's obsession with power is almost Shakespearean at its core; like Regina George and the Heathers before her, the 17-year-old is powered by an insatiable desire to be the most important person in the room, even risking her relationships with Maxie and protegé Paloma (newcomer Celeste O'Connor) in the process. Cornered by the ticking hands of time, Selah subconsciously allows her ambition to transform her into the villain of her own story.
The measured unravelling of her film's main character is not lost upon Poe, who pieced the plot together after writing a series of short stories about Selah. In fact, the moral undoing is perfectly intentional. It just comes as a surprise to us because we rarely get to see Black characters, especially Black girl characters, act up without consequence. Teenagers tend to be reckless here and there, and in reality, Selah is no different. Her misdeeds as the head of the Spades may be extreme, but they're absolutely par for the course as a teenager, a fact reiterated by the movie's young cast.
"Getting alcohol and weed for your friends and acting out are part of teenage life," said O'Connor, who plays Paloma, the ambitious future leader of the Spades. "Exploring during this formative years is something most kids — Black, white, or otherwise — can relate to. It doesn't always have to be trauma porn about us getting thrown in jail and ruining our lives."
Poe pulled inspiration for Selah from her own experience as a teenager. A self-described "Tasmanian devil," the director shared that she too once dealt with an overflow of emotions that she just didn't know what to do with. Looking back, Poe says, she is thankful that she wasn't villainized for her turmoil as a young person. In return, she's paying it forward with Selah, creating a world in which another emotionally unstable Black girl can freely work through her chaos.
"I want Black kids to be able to push those boundaries," Poe explained passionately. "Pushing boundaries is such a human thing to do. I didn't want to punish Selah for doing so — people are really eager to see Black girls be punished. I wasn't going to do that. I wanted to help her grow."
According to Simone, who brought the anti-hero to life in the film, activating her inner baddie was no easy feat. For the 21-year-old, best known for playing pastor's kid Zora Greenleaf on the OWN original series Greenleaf, the power-hungry drug dealer is a far cry from her real personality. But it was the character's same drive and stubborn self-determination that immediately drew the actress to the part.
"Selah just is," Simone told Refinery29. "She's a force. She just does what feels true to her...that's the kind of girl that I would've wanted to be in high school."
Selah's rollercoaster story is one that Poe has been painstakingly working on for years now, a labour of love that is deeply entangled with her own biography. Now that the film is out, she's fully aware that audience might find her lead to be jarring — actually, she's counting on it. But out of that discomfort, Poe hopes, will spring forth a moment of quiet but revelatory self-recognition.
"We're all Selah. We're all Maxie. We're all Paloma," she concluded. "I want us to recognize that we all have the power to damage the people we love. But we also need to know that we can be damaged by the people we love."
Watch Selah and the Spades on Amazon Prime now.