Selah and the Spades
The formula is a classic. Scholarship kid gets into a fancy school and finds an enigmatic crew of beautiful, dangerous power brokers running things on the student level. Selah and the Spades gives us the pieces of that movie, but flips the perspective almost immediately.
In most high school movies, we’d follow Paloma, a freshman photographer at Haldwell Boarding School on a scholarship, as she learns her way around the elite ivy-and-mahogany-clad campus. Paloma is a very sympathetic narrator, all quiet hopefulness and camera in front of her face.
But instead we follow mysterious, tightly-wound senior Selah Summers, the soon-to-abdicate monarch.
Selah runs the Spades, the most powerful of Haldwell’s five factions. Each faction controls a different illegal trade at Haldwell – one throws the parties, one provides test answers, and the Spades keep the students in party drugs and alcohol. Selah seeks out Paloma early on in the movie to try to secure her legacy and the future of the Spades. Selah, Paloma, and Selah’s partner in crime, Maxxie, run the school exactly how they want to, until Selah begins to feel threatened by Paloma’s burgeoning confidence.
Selah and the Spades plays with the high school thriller genre just enough to keep the viewer guessing. Watching the story unfold from Selah’s perspective drives home the themes of the story. It isn’t about finding your place in high school, the influence of friends or even the dangers of running a drug ring. The film is about power and control – having it, seeking more of it, and abusing it.
The story is just off enough to feel unfamiliar, and the shooting follows that lead. The colors are saturated, especially the lush green of the school lawns and the deep mahogany of the fancy furniture. The framing is unique enough to be noticeable. It’s often in extremes, pulled far out from a conversation or zoomed in intimately on a character’s face. The shooting feels a bit noir sometimes, framing characters in unconventional angles. Director Tayarisha Poe is clearly an artist of vision. At one point in the film, Selah delivers a powerful monologue about the different groups that try to exert control over a 17-year-old woman’s body, and the shots make viewers see Selah and her cheer squad from several different points of view, driving home the many different angles of the issue. Selah is supremely interested in having the loudest voice in the conversation about the power young black women are “allowed” to hold in the world. (The film never explicitly discusses race, but it is impossible to talk about power and feminism in 2020 without at least acknowledging that Haldwell is dominated by a gorgeous, young, and possibly asexual black woman.)
But this story also can’t be reduced to a rah-rah empowerment film. Selah, played by a compelling Lovie Simone (Greenleaf), is beautifully complicated. She’s an effective leader but occasionally a terrible friend. She’s tightly wound and cracking under pressure from multiple fronts, and her hubris eventually leads to disaster.
Selah and the Spades does get a bit lost when it’s trying to show the consequences of Selah’s pride. The action-heavy ending doesn’t quite fit the gorgeous, introspective vibes of the first two thirds of the movie. But the acting, aesthetics, spot-on music choices, and incredible character studies are powerful enough to carry things to a wonderfully tense close. Ultimately, it’s not really the story that makes Selah and the Spades so forcefully cutting. It’s the unique depiction of the intersecting demands of different authorities and the power teens wield among themselves that will leave viewers thinking long after the movie ends