Selah and The Spades (2019) Review: The Godfather-Esque Teen Drama

Lovie Simone as Selah in Selah and the Spades, directed by Tayarisha Poe, Amazon Studios.

This article was originally published in the Women’s Republic.

There are not a lot of teen drama movies that are like Selah and the Spades. Most teen dramas are set in romance. A young girl is trying to figure out her place in the world, dealing with teenage drama, boys and dating. But Selah and the Spades is a teen drama that has a different feel compared to many of the films of that genre. It is not the typical teen romance that we have seen before. It is a completely refreshing new movie.

Teen movies like Mean Girls, She’s All That, and Clueless are popular amongst many teenagers. Selah and the Spades takes a new perspective on the lives of young teenagers. Haldwell is an elite boarding school that has five different factions created by the student body to uphold the school hierarchy. They operate amongst each other to provide services like, cheating, gambling, parties, alcohol and keeps the administration out of their business.

How Haldwell and the world was created

Tayarisha Poe’s directorial debut, she took inspirations and influences from various aspects of her life and career. The story and themes for Selah and the Spades were a combination of photography, text, or a concept that she had explored while developing this film. It is a meticulous work of art combined with personal experiences and influences that she had in her life, from Huey P. Newton to Wes Anderson.

To create the world of Selah and the Spades, Poe took her personal experiences from her time in boarding school. When she was in college, she realized that the boarding school had a set of routines and rules that she had to follow. This was a completely different culture and it helped her develop and create Haldwell. The inspiration for the factions was from ‘The Secret History’ by Donna Tart, which is about a group of friends who attend a college that begins with a murder and develops into a cult. This book was a key aspect of the character’s dedication to the rules of the factions.

The tone and visual style were highly influenced by The Godfather, Brick by Rian Johnson, and multiple films by Wes Anderson. It was important to have a strong visual style that resonated with the tone of the film. The Godfather-esque setting brings out the language and atmosphere of the classic mob film which Poe was influenced by ever since she was a child. She wanted to combine those elements of The Godfather with a more teenage perspective and tone. This element helped her shape the antihero: Selah.

The leader of the Spades

Selah and the Spades, directed by Tayarisha Poe, Amazon Studios.

At the heart of the factions, Selah and Maxxie, her partner-in-crime, rule The Spades. She is the mobster boss that flaunts her power and authority in the five factions. Selah has to select a successor of The Spades before she leaves for college. The Spades are trying to keep everything in order and not cause war with the other factions. So, Selah is the central protagonist of the film.

Selah is the dominant figure around her friends and peers from the factions, but she is quiet and submissive around her mother. Selah’s personality shifts when her mother lectures her about her college plans. Her mother’s persona intimidates Selah and she is fearful of her. Selah is not ready to decide her future. Her only focus is to run the factions smoothly and keep everyone in check.

During all of this, Selah finds a perfect candidate, Paloma, a shy and curious freshman of Haldwell. Selah sees the potential in Paloma to take her throne as the next successor of The Spades and teaches her the trades of the game. From then onwards, Paloma is introduced into a new and complicated world of the senior class of Haldwell.

The predator and her prey

Selah and the Spades, directed by Tayarisha Poe, Amazon Studios.

Paloma is recruited to lead The Spades after Selah graduates Haldwell. She is a curious photographer who walks around with her camera and snaps pictures of Selah and the other factions. For Selah selecting the new protégé is the underlying tension in the film. She is slightly losing control of her faction as Maxxie is distracted and Paloma is slowly gaining more authority and control over The Spades.

An unanswered element in the movie is why the rest of The Spades are not up for the task of selecting a new successor. The only members of The Spades are Selah and Maxxie. The previous protégé was not successful, and Paloma never tries to uncover the truth of what happened. When Paloma finds out the truth, their relationship changes, and there is tension between them. There is a shift in Selah’s conflict as she does not want Paloma to transfer to another faction.

Selah’s decision that she makes to secretly drug her friend makes sense to her. So that was the logical step in Selah’s view of removing Paloma by committing a crime. For Selah, her ego and power do not stop her from committing the crime, but it makes sense to her. Later, she realizes that it was her ego and power that made her do it. Selah is aware that she makes a terrible decision and regrets what she did only after it had happened. This is the making of an antihero.

An unusual teen drama

Selah and the Spades, directed by Tayarisha Poe, Amazon Studios.

This Godfather-esque teen drama is quite different from the usual movies that are on screen. It is a new perspective of a boarding school with mobster gangs that follow a hierarchy to keep their underground work hidden. In this film, race and class are not the biggest issues for the characters. Also, Paloma’s scholarship is mentioned at the beginning of the film to make a possible note, but that is not a conflict at all.

Selah and the Spades is visually expressive, especially when the characters are in the frame. Poe’s characters dominate the screen and bring out their strength in every scene. Also, the dialogues, monologues, and breaking the fourth wall, add a seductive quality and style. It is beautiful and difficult to look away as each character brings out their substance into the monologue.

There is no denying that Poe’s directorial debut brings new stories about Black youth being centered in the story. This new generation of filmmakers is taking complex stories and creating new voices for the unheard. Whether they are personal stories or a mixture of influential movies, Selah and the Spades is a fresh perspective of a genre that is quite the opposite of its predecessors.

Writer | Contributor at Women’s Republic | https://linktr.ee/nuhahassan

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