Inside Tayarisha Poe's cinematic masterpiece
Last Spring, Amazon Studios released “Selah and the Spades” starring Lovie Simone (“Greenleaf”), Oscar Winner Jharrel Jermone (Moonlight, When they see us), and Celeste O’Connor (Ghostbusters). From casting a dark-skinned actress in a leading role to showcasing the intricacies of Black adolescence, there was a lot that filmmaker Tayarisha Poe got right with this quirky teen drama.
Really, the story was not just told through the dialogue. It was also told through the cinematography. Poe noted that a visual inspiration for the film was Rihanna, whose music videos incorporate cinematic elements. When Selah and her Spades walk away at the end, I saw parallels to Rihanna grabbing the gun at the end of the “Man Down” video.
In an interview with the American Film Institute, Poe calls Rihanna an “impossibly cool, seemingly approachable bad bitch.” We see these qualities in Selah Summers.
Summers is the Queen pin of an underground drug ring at Haldwell, her posh Pennsylvania boarding school. Coming from a strict mother, played by acclaimed actress Gina Torres, Selah uses drugs as a form of escapism from her problems. At the beginning of the film, we see Selah's first problem: she is in her senior year, and there is no one to replace her as the head of the Spades, her gang.
When she meets Paloma, a transfer student who works for the newspaper, Selah sees potential in this new face. After Selah asks Paloma to help her spy on other factions, the two form an intimate friendship. As Selah primes her replacement, she must grapple with her demons.
According to Poe, “Selah was inspired by being a teenager who had a lot of emotions like I did and being kind of angry because I did not how to communicate those emotions.” In the film, this anger Poe describes results in violent tiffs between Selah and her friends.
We initially learn that Selah’s righthand man is Maxxie, Jerome’s character. When Maxxie messes up, Selah sends him on a dangerous mission, and he returns with the scars to show for it. Similarly, when Paloma talks to the head of a rival gang, Selah drugs Paloma.
In colloquial terms, Selah is “toxic.” Yet, we must also remember that Selah is seventeen with room to grow, Poe explained during her interview with IndieWire. She said, “I just thought about the experience of being a teenage girl, being a Black teenage girl with everybody constantly putting you into a box…I wanted to write a character who told you who she was.”
Selah does this with an enchanting cheerleading monologue:
“You know who decides our uniforms?” Selah asks aloud.
“We do,” her team responds in unison.
“You know who choreographs our routines?”
“We do,” they repeat.
Throughout the movie, Selah keeps this same energy. Even when she messes up, she owns it. “I love that about her,” Poe said. Overall, “Selah and the Spades” was a beautiful film that explored the intricacies of teenage life through the perspective of a Black girl. It will be interesting to see how Poe translates Selah’s flare into the forthcoming series. ~ℝ
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