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A film following a group of Black teenagers’ attempt at remaking their sheltered private school world in their own image
From left, Celeste O’Connor, Lovie Simone and Jharrel Jerome in “Selah and the Spades.”
“Selah and the Spades” is an interesting entry into the cannon of Black girl coming of age films – there are no boys going around breaking hearts no emphasis on becoming popular or negotiating social capital among white teens who’s high school experience has been chronicled in every way imaginable since the early aughts. In her directorial debut, Tayarisha Poe takes us into the world of Haldwell, an elite boarding school tucked away in the suburbs of Philadelphia, a bubble of immense access and excess. The audience is slowly drawn into the story of one the school’s de facto leaders, Selah Summers, her right hand man Maxxie, protégé Paloma, and her subordinate gang of dealers in teenage vice, The Spades.
Selah is the type of movie gangster in the vein of Tupac’s Bishop, but packaged in comfy, oversized sweaters and polished black oxfords. The film follows Selah, played by Lovie Simone, in her quest to find an heir to her faction’s throne during the spring of her senior year of high school. The heir apparent, Paloma, played by Celeste O’Connor, is both the beneficiary and victim of Selah’s insatiable and destructive quest to secure her personal legacy and keep their racket out of the hands of the conniving Bobby and her faction of party-throwing theater nerds. Throughout the hour and thirty-seven-minute runtime, the audience is immersed in the lush world of Haldwell and the cast of private school teens who have created an underground world within the confines of ivy lined halls of rules and privilege – like Maxxie at the films climatic end, I found myself asking why Selah is willing to go so far as to destroy the world around her to protect this nebulous high school legacy? Outside of the melding of mobster and high school tropes, what exactly is an antihero like Selah saying about the larger state of Black girlhood in 2020?
Selah is a kid straight out a helicopter parent’s dream: she is popular, captain of the school spirit squad, an A student at a prestigious institution, and has secured a position at an equally prestigious college. She seems secure in her Blackness, her box-braids and perfectly laid baby hairs are immediate markers of her intimacy with the rituals of Black girlhood. She is methodical in her presentation, always perfectly coifed and shies away from the good time she sells to the other kids at school. She does not aspire to a superficial performance of Whiteness or any of the other common tropes associated with black bodies moving through the overwhelmingly white private school sphere, instead, her relationship to her blackness seems assured. In many ways, she embodies the person I would have hoped to become in high school.
For any black kid that has spent a lot of time in a particular type of private school (think wealthy, not rich), it is always abundantly clear the rules that dictate the lives of the majority of the student body, and the sphere of power that protects them does not apply equally (or really at all), to the institution’s Black students. I went to a high school like the Haldwell School, where you would overhear stories about weekend gatherings at classmate’s home with private bowling alley or a springtime escapade after school at a lakefront home with an easily accessible boat and multi-million dollar view. About once a year you could get a glimpse at one of the richest men in the world strolling across campus for parent night because his oldest daughter was in your small class of around a hundred. Spending your formative years in an environment where you are watching first-hand how power is really created for and by the children of the wealthy, you can see how that same power manifest in the existence of The Factions – everything they do is explicit exertion of their burgeoning understanding and relationship to that power. Poe went to boarding school herself, is fully versed in the power dynamics of institutions like the fictional Haldwell, and is easily able to bring these relationships to life. She does not need to add any element of the extraordinary – the inherent tension created by the real-world power differentials between the leaders of the Factions themselves provide a natural well of potential conflict. So why then does Poe add the additional power dynamic in the form of another adult authority figure, Selah’s overbearing mother Maybelle, when the underground world of Haldwell already exists as the ultimate middle finger to the Heads of School.
Maybelle’s function in the movie is that of an overbearing mother and as an avatar of the Black middle class. Her presence and interactions with Selah function as reminders that the world that exists with Haldwell is not the same that will exist when she leaves – any mistake or slip up will be a way for the powers that be to punish her. It is her demeanor and expectations toward Selah that remind me of the opening essay of Margo Jefferson’s memoir “Negroland” and the way the Talented Tenth, or the Black upper middle class, instill caution into their children:
Negroland is my name for a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty. Children in Negroland were warned that few Negroes enjoyed privilege or plenty and that most whites would be glad to see them returned to indigence, deference, and subservience…
Jefferson’s memoir follows her own attempts of subverting these unspoken rules through becoming a writer; in her own extreme way Selah is doing the same. In creating the dynamic between Selah and her mother, Poe pulls from Jamaica Kincaid’s short story “Girl”, which expresses some of the ways a mother projects the role of caregiver to men and children on young women. Selah’s obsession with being the most memorable faction leader at the school is an aggressive act of subversion of the claustrophobic culture of the Black upper middle class and its attitude towards its women and girls.
The Prefects Faction. They run interference between the student body and the administration.
The scene in which we put a face to Maybelle’s voice, we see a gray sedan pull up to a beautiful and modest home with a wraparound porch in a quiet middle-class suburb. The camera follows Selah as she enters the house by walking around the porch and through the front door rather than the side, almost like this house is not really her home. It seems as if she is catching her breath in a moment of mental preparation for dealing with her mother.
Throughout their interaction, we see Selah shed some of her anti-hero shell and become docile and childlike. While outwardly expressing perhaps some of her most relatable feelings about her uncertainty post-high school, her mother doubles down on making clear what she and the greater world expect of Selah. Maybelle tells Selah the parable of the Scorpion and the Frog – the lesson is that like the Scorpion, Selah cannot help but act on her nature. The tense exchange between the two ends with Maybelle saying, “Redwood will be good for you. It will put you in your place. It will keep you safe. From yourself. Something has to.”
There is a privilege in being afforded the opportunity to have the best education money can buy, but in pursuing that, that world will extract its pound of flesh. The stark contrast between Selah and her mother’s ways of moving through the world reflect their understandings of how things are different and how black girls should and need to move through the world once at a certain level of achievement and class status. The dynamics of this age-old battle is interesting through the lens of a woman-led crime movie; in any other film, these women would have been ancillary characters.
In the canon of young black folks navigating through the world of the white elite, like Justin Simien’s Dear White People or the Kenya Barris -ish universe, most of these portrayals provide a look at these women through the eyes of their Black male creators. The black male gaze is limited in how much it can see in the vastness of these young women’s lives, which make filmmakers like Tayerisha Poe’s voice and vision all the more important. Personally, I am tired of seeing the same tired teen tales – audiences deserve stories that reflect just how scary teens really are.
Selah, Paloma, and Maxxie.
At the end of everything I write, I want to provide a list of all the music, movies, and books circulating through my head as I try to piece together some semi-coherent thoughts.
Selah and the Spades Official Playlist:
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