Writer/director Tayarisha Poe’s feature debut “Selah and the Spades,” which made its world premiere as a NEXT selection at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, is an assured first film, bolstered by persuasive performances, lavish production design, and beautiful cinematography. Serving up a fresh and surreal take on the teen drama, it’s more interested in how race, gender, and socioeconomic status influence the dynamics of power, even among high-school students. And it marks an exciting and utterly original debut for Poe, whose future looks bright.
On Poe’s website, she describes herself as “a storyteller from west Philly, born and raised, who believes that all stories are inherently multi-sensory and multi-dimensional, and should be told that way.” It’s a personal statement that she said was inspired by Chris Marker’s 1962 short, “La Jetée,” one of the most influential, radical science-fiction films ever made, a tale of time travel told in still images.
“The idea that something like that could be a movie that didn’t look or feel to me like what I understood a movie to be, made me realize that a movie could be anything,” Poe said. “Definitions are meaningless, words are just words. If you’re telling me that this montage of photographs accompanied by a voiceover is a movie, then I can do whatever I want and call it a movie.”
A complex portrait of young people in itself a multi-sensory work, “Selah and the Spades” tells the story of a charismatic black teenager set in the closed world of a fictional elite Pennsylvania boarding school, the Haldwell, where the student body is run by five factions — The Spades, The Sea, The Skins, The Bobbies, and The Prefects. Selah runs the most authoritative, The Spades, who supply students with coveted illegal alcohol and drugs. As the school year comes to an end, Selah realizes that she will lose control of The Spades, with sophomore upstart Paloma making waves. As the latter begins to overshadow the former, Selah becomes determined to reassert her power, no matter the cost.
Drawing from personal relationships, Poe initially envisioned the film as an online series of photographs, short films, and prose. Mostly invested in the idea of nonlinear storytelling, Poe took some time to eventually accept that “Selah” had to be a more conventional narrative feature film.
“It wasn’t until after I graduated college, and made ‘Selah and the Spades,’ that I really, really understood the benefit of making a feature film — film itself as a medium where you sit down and watch something for two hours, which has a specific pull that other formats don’t,” she said. “The act of putting down a book and coming back to it can enhance your experience of the book. Whereas, for film, you sit down, and you watch it, start to finish. I can’t think of anything else that requires, or that benefits from that focus.”
Poe’s relation to cinema began in childhood. Coming from a very large family with teachers for parents, watching movies and rigorously discussing them was a habitual thing. The process was also a pathway to her better understanding her family.
“I feel like I know my brothers so much more because they showed me ‘The Labyrinth’ when I was a kid, and because they showed me ‘The Neverending Story,’ or ‘Pagemaster,’ and I felt like my understanding of my parents bloomed when ‘The Matrix’ came out, because we talked about it,” said Poe. “I was just a kid then, but, based on our conversations about it, I came to understand them as anti-establishment, anti-imperialist, pan-African people. For some reason I needed ‘The Matrix’ to help me do that. So I like when people recommend movies to me, because I feel like it says a lot about them.”
Poe, who initially considered becoming a lawyer, made the decision to be a filmmaker while in college at Swarthmore, a period in her life when she came to the realization that “regular people” can also become filmmakers.
“I got to college, and my worldview of what was possible in terms of careers really expanded,” she said. “Then also, because my school was a small liberal arts college, and our film department was more of a film program, in which the students within it had a lot of freedom and independence, and control over their academic careers. And I like environments that let me do whatever I want to do, so it worked out well.”
And with extraordinarily styled “Selah and the Spades,” which stars a young, impressive cast of fresh faces, including Lovie Simone as the titular Selah Summers, Poe got to make exactly the film that she wanted to, and then some.
“It’s definitely better than what I intended to make,” she said. “There were moments when I would walk onto set for the day, and my jaw would just drop, looking at the set they put together. I told the production designer, and the whole art department, that it felt like walking into my dreams. That’s the benefit of collaboration — a bunch of smart people can come together and make your ideas even better.”
As for what’s next for Poe, Amazon is developing an original series based on “Selah and the Spades,” which Poe will write, direct, and produce, along with Lauren McBride, who also produced the film.
She’s also scripting another feature, which already has a home. She couldn’t talk publicly about it yet, but promised that it will be just as distinct as “Selah.”
“I am always eager to see stories about the marginalia of black life, and more generally about the minutiae of being a human being,” the filmmaker said. “In film, in most Western storytelling, there is this false, persistent assumption that the relatable ‘every man’ story can only be successful — and therefore must only be told — with white characters at the center of them. And that’s just not my jam.”
“Selah and the Spades,” is now streaming on Amazon Prime.