High school isn't always a musical; it can be a social war zone filled with factions of cliques who run the halls, as seen in Tayarisha Poe's directorial debut "Selah and the Spades."
The Amazon Prime original is more than your average “on Wednesdays we wear pink” teen movie; sorry not sorry — “Mean Girls.” The film follows Selah Summers (portrayed by Lovie Simone of “Greenleaf”), a black 17-year-old senior at the top of the social ladder of Haldwell, a prestigious boarding school. There are five factions of cliques at Haldwell, and Selah runs the Spades with her BFF Maxxie (portrayed by “Moonlight” and “When They See Us” star Jharrel Jerome) as her right-hand man. The Spades deal in vices such as booze, pills, powders, and fun. But as her senior year comes to a close, Selah’s control and spot atop the social ladder are threatened by the drama club faction, the Bobbies. Led by Bobby (Ana Mulvoy-Ten), a blonde entitled piece of work who desperately wants Selah’s throne. Viewers follow this power struggle, as Selah seeks out her replacement before war breakouts at Haldwell.
Selah is always on and never has the option to fail. There’s a lot of pressure to be queen, as she juggles the academic expectations set by her mother (portrayed by Gina Torres), cheer squad and the reign of the Spades. You honestly don’t know whether you should root for her, despise her or feel sorry for her.
Selah sets her eye on the new girl, Paloma (Celeste O’Connor), to take over the Spades after graduation. Paloma is a sophomore day student and aspiring photographer who is sucked into the underground social hierarchy of Haldwell. Poe poetically uses the young photographer, Paloma, as the audience’s lens into this very complex world. The girls form a strong and unhealthily intense bond; a bond that threatens Selah’s relationship with her best friend, Maxxie, who desires his own social life away from her shadow. Though it seems like a harmless pursuit of Maxxie’s, his actions ultimately jeopardize the Spades’ operation.
“Selah and the Spades” is a hybrid of noir mob films with tones of hopeful heroine teen rom-com tropes, diving into the world of boarding school teens left to their own vices with little to no adult interference except for a hapless headmaster (portrayed by Jesse Williams). The world Poe has built-in this film sucks you into the carefree, cruel melodrama of 17-year-old high school politics. Cinematographer Jomo Fray adds to the conception of this contemporary art film. Fray captures neon-colored, vivid scenes showcasing the underground social rituals the factions use to spice up their dull school life. Though the film is buried in artsy cinematic scenes and fourth wall breaking storytelling, that at times is hard to follow, the underlying story is one made clear:
“When you’re 17, you’ve got to grab onto that control wherever you can and hold tight for dear life.” That’s the mantra Selah mutters while explaining the rules of survival to Paloma.
But sometimes that control comes at an irredeemable cost. Selah is more than willing to pay it when Palomo starts to fly too close to the sun and threatens Selah’s control before her reign is up. This twist in the story shows viewers the complexities of passing the torch, a constant battle of mentorship, and the feeling of being pushed aside by the new shinier thing. “Selah and the Spades” joins the contemporary world of black filmmakers that have embarked on more artistic and non-traditional black film tropes of poverty and bondage. Poe delivers more than a spade but a wild card for more complex stories to be told.