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Selah and the Spades is a high school movie crossed with a mob drama, inspired by Rihanna

Director Tayarisha Poe talks about the artists and ideas that influenced her fun, daring new movie.

Lovie Simone in Selah and the Spades.
Ashley Bean / Amazon Studios
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Warring factions. Truces and sworn enemies. A fierce leader and her faithful followers. A newcomer who threatens her hold.

That’s the basis for the new film Selah and the Spades, which debuts on April 17 on Amazon Prime Video. But there’s a twist: It all takes place in a preppy high school. Both deliciously wicked and perceptive about the battle of just getting through the day when you’re a teen, the drama follows Paloma (Celeste O’Connor), who is the new girl at Haldwell School, a prestigious boarding school. When she arrives, she’s taken under the wing of Selah (Lovie Simone), a sophisticated upperclassmen and the leader of the most powerful of Haldwell’s “factions,” the Spades. Each faction operates a bit like a gang, with specialties of their own. The Spades’ is to sell drugs to the other students.

Selah and the Spades mixes the classic tropes of mobster movies with the cliques and concerns of high school films, but with a twist that’s all Tayarisha Poe’s. It’s the multitalented director’s first feature film, and it signals a strong voice and vision for filmmaking — one that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

I recently spoke to Poe by phone about the film’s visual style, her influences, the reason she centered her story on an antihero like Selah, and more.

Alissa Wilkinson

Selah and the Spades feels very stylized — it’s obviously a movie made by someone who had a strong idea of the tone and visual style they wanted right from the start.

Tayarisha Poe

Totally. I feel like it’s really obvious when you watch the movie that Wes Anderson is a huge inspiration of mine. When I was in high school and college, seeing Wes Anderson movies was the first time that I had seen something that felt like a storybook in a movie that was made for adults. I was addicted to that feeling of a storybook. Anytime I ask myself, “Why do I make movies?” it always comes back to this love of storytelling, and that feeling of the pages opening and entering into this world.

Also, that movie Romeo + Juliet by Baz Luhrmann, do you remember that? That’s one of my favorites. It has that same worldbuilding quality. Like, that’s just fuckin’ Venice, California, and it feels so otherworldly. Definitely that as well. Baz Luhrmann and Wes Anderson.

Lovie Simone and Jharrel Jerome in Selah and the Spades.
Ashley Bean / Amazon Studios

Alissa Wilkinson

And it’s not like we haven’t seen a movie set in a prep school or a high school before, but this one feels distinctly different. Sometimes it feels like a Martin Scorsese movie or something, with all of these warring gangs.

Tayarisha Poe

Totally. I grew up watching The Godfather. My parents freaking love that trilogy, as do I. I feel like The Godfather, specifically the first one — obviously, it’s a classic, so a lot of us have it in our DNA as filmmakers and as writers. But every time I watch it, it feels like returning home. So I feel like there’s a lot of Godfather influence in Selah and the Spades.

But even more than that, there’s this movie called Brick by Rian Johnson, who’s one of my favorite filmmakers. I’ve loved that movie since I first saw it. Right after I saw it, I made one of my first short films, and it was just a complete rip-off of Brick because I loved it so much.

The reason I love Brick is it does what I’m trying to do in Selah and the Spades: It takes this language and this mood and this atmosphere that is decidedly adult and serious and weighted and heavy, and places it in this world that’s typically seen as unserious — a teenaged world.

Because of this movie, I’ve been spending time with teenagers for years now, and they are serious human beings. They’re all just figuring out life, and that’s not that much different from being an adult. I’m really drawn to the complexity of being a teenager; there’s so much that you’re experiencing for the first time. I like the way that when teenagers are heartbroken, they feel like they might die, and it’s because they don’t really know if they’re gonna die or not. That weightiness that teenagers feel about themselves and their own life fits in nicely and naturally with the language and atmosphere of a classic mob film.

Alissa Wilkinson

At the heart of this movie, you have a great antihero: Selah, who is obviously not someone we should emulate, but we might admire her. How did she come to you?

Tayarisha Poe

Selah is just ... she’s a teenage girl. [Laughs.] She’s a teenage girl who has a little bit more power than most teenage girls do. But I think that she is crafted after the teenage girls that I knew when I was a teenager, and the one I saw myself as, as well.

What was really important to me with Selah as a character were her decisions. Those decisions that we may not agree with her making, because we’re not in her situation — those decisions always make logical sense to her. I wanted to make sure the character was always logical, even if we disagreed with her logic. I feel like that’s a trait that all the great antihero characters share, like Walter White in Breaking Bad and Tony Soprano in The Sopranos. They do terrible, messed-up shit, but they always know how to explain it. Their explanation always makes just the right amount of sense right before they have to stop themselves and admit that it’s just ego that got them there. I like that Selah’s ego fits in with this weird sense of logic that she has.

Alissa Wilkinson

So you have these compelling characters, but you set them down in a visual environment that’s very striking, too. How do you design that world so it’s visually interesting and grabs people’s attention? What’s your process like, especially with your background as a photographer?

Tayarisha Poe

A lot of it does come from how much photography influences my storytelling. I’ve been doing photography since high school, since I’ve been making movies. Once I picked up a camera, I started doing both.

Do you know this movie by Chris Marker, La Jetée? It’s like a half-hour long. They showed it to us when I was in high school in Intro to Film, and I was just blown away by the fact that this movie could be a bunch of photographs with some voiceover and a little bit of atmospheric sound and, like, five seconds of moving image, and that could constitute a movie.

So, once I saw that, I was like, okay, maybe a movie is not — this idea isn’t totally formed, but it’s something I keep thinking about every time I start a project — maybe a movie isn’t what we think it is. I keep asking myself, “What makes a film? What makes a movie?” Not just the physical medium, but conceptually, what makes a movie?

So, when Jomo [Fray] — the cinematographer [for Selah and the Spades], a great friend and a genius, truly — and I got into making the shot listing for the film, we just dug in. We really dipped into our love of photography, and our love of images that can in their own right tell an entire story, so that whatever we’re adding is telling a new story or a new version of that story. I think what cemented it for us was this idea that Selah is the predator, and in her eyes, everyone else is prey. Then how do we capture that as we’re moving throughout this school, and how do we capture Paloma?

What it boiled down to was this idea that we called savage formalism, which, believe it or not, is borne out of our love for Rihanna and her album Anti. She has this one line on “Needed Me” where she goes, “Didn’t they tell you that I was a savage?” She’s presumably saying to this man, “I can’t believe you’re sitting here crying in front of me about how wrong I did you. Didn’t they warn you about me?” She is just so unapologetically savage. So part of what we wanted to do [with Selah] was [incorporate] that sort of savagery, that impossibly cool projection of self that Rihanna has.

The formalism comes from talking about brutalist architecture and what happens to a society after a war. We thought about the world of Haldwell School, the system of the factions in the school. Everything is a little bit tense because no one has been running things for so long, and power is constantly shifting. So what happens to their world, this beautiful world of this boarding school with all these hip, cool young kids? What does this beauty look like through the eyes of a person, Selah, who’s been through this war of high school? That’s how we came up with this very non-high school way to look at high school. It was fun.

Three teenagers stand together, looking straight at the camera.
Selah and the Spades boasts a terrific cast and a distinctive visual style.
Amazon Studios

Alissa Wilkinson

It’s fun to watch, too. As Selah and the Spades has played at film festivals, people have seen it, and you’ve been around to hear their reactions. Have you heard anything in particular from teenagers who’ve seen it? What are they saying? What do they say to you?

Tayarisha Poe

Yeah. We actually got to play it at TIFF’s Next Wave, which was just one of the greatest experiences of my life. [Note: The Next Wave program at the Toronto International Film Festival features films selected by a committee of film enthusiasts aged 15 to 18.] Shout-out to all those kids because they’re brilliant and so smart. They’re a bunch of high schoolers, and they ask the best questions, and it was really refreshing to talk to them about it because it’s really a story for them.

I think people who are post-college, people who are my age — millennials, I guess, because now we’re all old — we can look back at high school and say, “Oh, yeah, maybe I shouldn’t have done those things, but everybody’s okay now.” Or you look back at high school and say, “Oh, maybe it wasn’t the best time, but it was, like, mostly pretty cool.” It’s all hindsight. But I think for teenagers, it’s happening right now, so they’re feeling these emotions right now, and they’re going through this tumultuous time period of figuring out college or dealing with their parents and dealing with their friends or handling all their stuff right now. So I think their reaction was much more visceral than I was even expecting.

I think a lot of them felt very seen. They hadn’t seen somebody who looked like them on screen do these things before. I don’t know if audiences who are white realize or recognize what it feels like to not see yourself all the time, just constantly not see yourself, and when you do see yourself, you’re being shot by a cop or you’re going to jail. It’s a traumatic experience. It’s incredibly refreshing to sit and watch a movie, at least for me — not necessarily Selah, but just any movie that stars black people — and not be afraid that the thing that will destroy this character is racism, or white supremacy, or things that are out of their control.

So I think that a lot of the kids who saw Selah and the Spades were just reacting to this relief of seeing themselves make it, seeing themselves have fun, and seeing themselves question authority and still survive — more than survive, thrive.

Selah and the Spades is available on Amazon Prime Video.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

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