Lovie Simone in Selah and the spades
Photo: Courtesy of Amazon Studios / Courtesy of Amazon Studios
Selah (Lovie Simone), the queen of flint bees at the heart of Tayarisha Poe’s captivating beginnings, is a senior at an elite boarding school in Pennsylvania. She is a student A and leader of the team of spirits, the envy and admiration of her classmates. She is also a drug trafficker, a role she occupies for the power that accompanies her rather than for money – money being something she and the majority of her classmates do not seem to miss. Power is the only currency to consider at Haldwell, who is technically led by the director played by Jesse Williams, but who is in practice overseen by five cliques designated by everyone as factions. Each faction oversees a different aspect of the student body’s underground economy, from games of chance to cheating and parties, to keeping the administration in the dark. The Spades run the illicit substances and Selah manages the Spades, which means that she effectively runs the prestigious institution in which the characters in the film are enrolled.
Selah and the spades is a welcome entry to the canon of movies about high school as a battlefield, which extends from the satirically anthropological styles of Bad girls to the supernaturally improved dramas of The job (whose next remake will feature Simone). While his Pennsylvania preparatory school setting could recall other chronicles of a rich child like Cruel intentions, the film is closer in tone and spirit to the 2005 neo-black of Rian Johnson Brick. Poe doesn’t superimpose hardboiled traditions on his teenage machinations like Johnson does, but he treats his criminal families for children with the same ironic seriousness as his characters. It’s not a gangster movie as we tell prep school kids – it’s more like a movie to point out that gangsters are just grown-up teens. The disloyal are excommunicated, the traitors beaten. The first time newcomer Paloma (Celeste O’Connor) returns from her role as a police officer, her knuckles are bloody. “I didn’t know it would hurt so much,” she said to Selah, as elated as she was shocked.
The increasingly strained relationship between Paloma and Selah, who envisions the girl as a possible successor, forms the backbone of the film. It’s not a blessing to be Selah’s protégé, not when her desire for inherited wars with her reflexive instinct to destroy anyone who threatens her rule. Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome), Selah’s best friend, retains his position as second in command only through persistence, and even attracts his anger when his attention drifts to a new relationship. Selah has no desire for any of her subordinates. When it comes to dating, she says to Paloma, “I don’t do it. I never wanted to. What she wants instead is some kind of impossible loyalty, and whispers about a missing student named Tila indicate that she destroyed someone she had already taken under her wing. Poe instructs the camera to follow Selah through the school hallways or to slowly approach her face in a group of other people at the gymnasium, alluding to the commotion below. Brief conversations with his demanding mother (Gina Torres) hint at Selah’s training experiences, while the distress aroused by his university projects suggests a fear of leaving behind the ivy-covered walls of his high school realm.
Selah and the spades ends just when it feels like it is really gaining momentum, which is the main frustration of the film and also, probably, one of the reasons why it was taken over by Amazon both as a release and the basis for a possible adaptation of the series. Poe is so adept at filling the whims and ecosystems of Haldwell, with its party grounds and faction headquarters and secret spaces – the chest where the pikes keep their contraband, for example, is lit inside as a giant memory box – it’s hard not to want to explore this world further. The film’s imagination sometimes exceeds its resources – in particular, oddly enough, when it comes to the size of the members of the Spades themselves – but it is very good at portraying school as a fascinating place; Being there is like a picturesque swim with sharks. Occasional intrusions from the real world, including an invisible rush to Fishtown in Philadelphia for restocking, resemble blasts of cold water in the face.
Race and class are never explicitly among these intrusions, as far as the film teases his conscience with mentions of Paloma being in a purse and with the name Spades probably chose for his entirely black crew – a card suit which is also an insult. In the school island bubble, these things are not mentioned, which is part of the dreamlike stylization of the film or testifies to the temporary leveling power of the privilege displayed. This adds to the alluring sense of insularity the film creates, so you might see someone hesitant to leave – especially when it also means giving up a seat on the throne.