“When you’re 17, you have to grab control whenever you can.”
If those words weren’t said by a teenager, you’d be okay with mistaking them for the edict of a mafia don. Take control. Be in charge, no matter what. For brash, overachieving prep school student Selah Summers, power is everything, and her high school experience is unlike yours, mine, and likely anybody that you ever knew. The mafia don comparison fits, because Selah is leader of the Spades, one of five dominant factions, more like cabals, at prestigious Haldwell boarding school. Social cliques are a thing and virtually every school drama embraces how important they are to a teenager’s self-image, but in Tayarisha Poe’s stylish, confident debut Selah and the Spades, they are literally the only thing that matters.
Classes? We don’t need no stinkin’ classes. You’ll scarcely see any of the students when they’re not working some angle to further their power base within the social hierarchy. At the top sits Selah (played ferociously by lapLovie Simone), who as the powerful, paranoid leader of the Spades secures drugs to keep the student body high as a kite at all times. The other factions, made up of theater geeks, legacy kids, misfits, and others, all have their role in pulling the wool over the faculty’s eyes. Even the principal (played by a bearded Jesse Williams, the beard distracting from his young face and blue eyes), who wants so badly to be cool to the students, is always in the dark.
Viewers of a certain age (read: me) may think this whole thing absurd. Admittedly, Poe’s vision is a little hard to settle into. We get it; high school is about cliques as much as anything else, but this is so self-serious and all-consuming as to be ridiculous. Your reticence fades as Poe takes you deeper into the school’s mafioso-like underbelly, where snitches get jumped in the hallways and tripped-out partiers frolicked in the neon-lit woods nearby. It’s hard not to get swept up in the energy of it all, and energy is what Selah and the Spades has in…well spades.
After a brisk introduction to the factions, one thing becomes clear. Poe, who is basing the story on her own incredible prep school experiences, frames everything from the perspective of black and brown teens. It’s a rarely-seen viewpoint, especially one where the black protagonist isn’t an outsider but the dominant figure. Selah is a complex young woman, a terrorizing royal force not unlike Dany in Game of Thrones. She seeks companionship and complete loyalty, while instilling as much fear in the others as she can. At the same time, she’s held to an impossibly high standard by her parents. In the few scenes we see her away from school, the pressures heaped on Selah by her mother (Gina Torres) are reminiscent of the first half of Waves. It’s those same pressures to be absolutely perfect which drive Selah’s anxiety and rebelliousness. But in many black households kids are taught they must be twice as good as the next white person. Those feelings are real, and Poe doesn’t need to spend much time to capture how they impact Selah.
At the same time, Selah feels she has a legacy that must be passed down. Graduation is near, and she has yet to find an heir. That’s where new girl Paloma (Celeste O’Connor, a real breakout) enters the picture. We’re introduced to her through her wild, blown-out afro. It identifies her as someone natural in a world of artificiality. But she, too, gets wrapped up in Selah’s games and becomes her right hand. When Selah’s best friend/consigliere Maxxie (Jharrel Jarome) falls in love and starts slacking off, it’s Paloma who must manage her leader’s worst tendencies, which are to push everyone away.
Poe’s focus is on the friendship between Selah and Paloma, which often fails to look like more than mentor/student. But Poe is quick to show that Selah, perhaps more than anyone, is in need of someone she can confide in, and not just about who screwed-up and who is coming after her. There isn’t the slightest hint that Selah has any romantic interests; she outright blasts the idea and it doesn’t just sound like bravado. It’s refreshing, although Poe could’ve done a better job making Paloma’s interests in Selah clearer.
A mystery involving a missing confidante of Selah’s is teased and wrapped up in a way that complicates our opinion of her. This would be interesting if this wasn’t also the moment when Selah and the Spades lapsed into conventionality. Familiar story beats play out; a big party, a denouement, an epiphany that it’s time to grow up and move beyond high school problems. There’s more to the world, absolutely, but did the boring adult stuff have to intrude so soon?