Selah and the Spades is an exciting, fresh take on social class maneuvering, with very old undercurrents of thematic structure.
In the bubble universe of tony Pennsylvania Haldwell boarding school, the shadow social governance of the school is comprised of five factions. The most powerful faction, the Spades, is led by seventeen-year-old Selah Summers (Lovie Simone), who is a consummate mob boss. She rules relentlessly by elegantly balancing between inspiring affection and fear. Tony Soprano would be proud.
The Spades’ status derives from being the campus purveyors of illegal substances. None of the other factions can offer anything as compelling. The drug and booze trade cements Selah’s power.
Periodically the factions gather at a sit-down council away from school and work out differences and make decisions. Parents and faculty understand there is a hierarchy and machinations they do not have access to, despite trying to crack the code, they are unable to pierce that veil. Signs around the school proclaim that factions are gangs, and gangs are against school policy, but the factions persist, as constant as gravity.
“…the shadow social governance of the school is comprised of five factions. The most powerful faction, the Spades…”
When tensions between the factions escalate and with graduation fast approaching, Selah takes on a hand-picked successor in sophomore Paloma (Celeste O’Connor). Initially, Paloma is besotted with Selah but quickly learns that Selah has flaws and weaknesses. When Paloma proves to be easily her equal, becomes too good too fast, Selah resists handing over the crown. This is all the power she has ever had.
Writer/director Tayarisha Poe has created a character study of a young woman who wields nearly absolute power socially at school but is powerless in the wider world. The combination of pressure from her domineering mother (in a fantastic cameo by Gina Torres) and the headmaster of Haldwell played by Jesse Williams, leaves her feeling rudderless when considering life outside Haldwell. In the opening narration, Selah spells this out: she wants control of her body, her world, and her future.
Poe has also mastered a Shakespearean approach to drama. From her oddly formal language to the cadence of the scenes, she evokes the familiar style the English language is so beholden to. For those who miss this reference, she includes a scene that makes it clear. Selah goads Paloma to violence, speaking of doing whatever is necessary, arguing that the ends do justify the means. This dialog is delivered while they are in the school theater on the set of Macbeth. Blood made of red yarn cascades from the ceiling, and Selah is seated on Macbeth’s throne. Yes, that is a dagger that you see before you.
“There is an old-fashioned subtlety and artistry to the way the story gives up its secrets…”
Motivations that drive characters are revealed gradually, not force-fed to an attention span challenged audience. There is an old-fashioned subtlety and artistry to the way the story gives up its secrets, and it is wonderful. Poe is also calling back camera shots and moves made popular by Spike Lee, less homage there than just paying attention to what works.
The level of craft in Poe’s feature debut exceeds that of directors with more experience and portends a long career with more wonderful art to come. In Selah and the Spades, she has created a new classic tale of power, love, hate, loyalty, and betrayal featuring a stunningly talented cast.