Filmmaker Tayarisha Poe makes her feature debut with the drama “Selah and the Spades,” a 2019 Sundance NEXT selection, which is set for its world premiere at the festival on Sunday, January 27. Set in the closed world of an elite Pennsylvania boarding school, the Haldwell, where the student body is run by five factions, the film stars a young cast of fresh new faces, including Lovie Simone as the titular Selah Summers. She’s joined by Celeste O’Connor, Jharrel Jerome, Jesse Williams, Gina Torres, and Ana Mulvoy Ten.
Of Haldwell student body’s five factions — The Spades, The Sea, The Skins, The Bobbies, and The Prefects factions — Selah runs the most dominant, The Spades, who cater to the most classic of vices and supply students with coveted, illegal alcohol and pills. As the school year comes to an end, Selah must contend with the reality that she will lose control of The Spades, with sophomore upstart Paloma making waves. As the student begins to outshine the teacher, Selah becomes determined to reassert her power, no matter the cost.
For writer-director Poe, a 2016 Sundance Institute Knight Foundation Fellow, the “Lord of the Flies”-esque drama is ultimately about young people, away from their families, at a boarding school, attempting to govern themselves, creating their own version of a regulated environment. It’s also about shedding light on the relatively unseen.
“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 a recent interview with IndieWire. “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.”
Writing the film for those who rarely see their own lives reflected on the screen, Poe said that she also hopes to “spark empathy for the unempathetic moments in life.”
For the filmmaker, “Selah and the Spades,” which received development support from Sundance Institute’s Screenwriters, Directors, and Creative Producing Labs, is about, and was inspired by “no-pulp orange juice, brutalist architecture, codes of silence, rats, ineffectual adults, control, pleats in skirts, color, Rihanna as a way of being, cardigans, friendships that leave you with gut punches, telling the truth, mind games, lying, power vacuums, and spades — the card game, the gang, the Motörhead song, the tool, the suit, the faction.”
Ahead of the film’s premiere on Sunday, IndieWire has an exclusive first look via a trailer, plus images of the various factions that appear in the film.
First, check out the trailer below.
And now meet the factions that run the underground life at the prestigious Haldwell boarding school.