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 dialoge 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.
"…a new classic..."