High school can be a very polarizing time. It’s comprised of four years that seem to mean everything while you’re in the midst of them, but nothing at all when you’re reflecting on them in your rearview. Cinema has no shortage of high school depictions—specifically when it comes to analyzing the “mean girl” in film. From Carrie to Cruel Intentions — and of course Mean Girls, there have been plenty of depictions of the vicious popular girl, but there has been nothing quite like director Tayarisha Poe’s debut feature, Selah and the Spades.
Set in rural Pennsylvania on the picturesque grounds of the elite Haldwell boarding school, we meet Selah (Greenleaf’s Lovie Simone) —a leader of one of the five factions run by members of the student body. Tarit runs The C, a group made of teacher’s pets gone rogue; Amber runs The Skins who deal with anything that can be gambled on –football in the fall, basketball in the winter and softball every spring. The Bobbys are run by Bobby, and they handle all of the illegal parties on campus. Two Tom, the head of the prefects, keeps the administration at bay. Then, there are the Spades, run by Selah and her best friend Maxxi (Moonlight actor- Jharrel Jerome), who deal in the most coveted of vices, illegal alcohol and pills. The number one rule that all of the factions abide by is no snitching.
Since drawing up a peace treaty their sophomore year, the factions have worked harmoniously together, outwitting The Heads (Headmaster Banton is portrayed by Jesse Williams) and essentially keeping order in the school. However, in the Spring semester of their senior year, the faction heads are at each other’s throats and Selah and her secrets are at the root of this turmoil.
Often, in movies that examine the H.B.I.C— like Regina George from Mean Girls or Kathryn Merteuil from Cruel Intentions, the audience is only privy to the girls’ manipulative attitudes and lust for power. In Selah and the Spades, Tayarisha Poe doesn’t hesitate to make her main character vulnerable. Selah’s demons sit at the surface of her psyche, but her humanity also shines through. Her desperate strive for perfection along with a profoundly critical mother (Gina Torres) —have beaten down her confidence, but the brown-skinned beauty would surely rather die than allow others to see her true self.
Determined to keep the tenuous peace between the factions while also leaving a legacy, Selah takes on a protégée — sophomore transfer Paloma (Celeste O’Connor) —who is either deeply in love with Selah or wants to be her. Neither option bodes well for the girls’ relationship. What’s impressive here is that Poe refuses to allow Paloma to exist solely as Selah’s minion. Bold and artsy —the fluffy-headed photographer is witty and outspoken in a way that shocks both Selah and the audience. She shatters the trope of the easily manipulated waif, desperate to get the popular girl’s attention.
Selah takes the plight of high school students —girls in particular— seriously. One remarkable sequence involving Selah and her cheer squad is particularly gripping, since it showcases the genuine frustration and pains of what it means to be a 17-year old girl—someone society wants to both sexualize and lock in a cage. But the conflicts in Selah’s life have nothing to do with a crush or her desire for romance. She’s quite offended by the idea of a man (or boy) affecting her emotions. Instead, power, legacy and her desperate desire for independence are her sole concerns.
Brilliant and cruel, Selah is barely redeemable, but she’s thrilling to watch. Deeply pained by a personal loss, troubled by her relationship with her mother, and exhausted by the expectations that have been placed upon her, her menacing moves echo the witchy nature of Nancy Downs in the cult classic, The Craft. After all, actions based in fear can lead you to the very edge of yourself.
More than the sheer delight of watching a powerful Black girl, Selah and the Spades is an earnest celebration of youth and power —something long-reserved for white teens while excluding young people of color. Though the factions have their differences, there is something beautiful about the harmonious way they work together in order to outsmart the establishment. Selah and the Spades proves it’s past time that the world—and certainly cinema—sincerely grapples with the pain and beauty of high school, and why for Black teenagers, freedom above all else is the most coveted thing in the world.
Selah and the Spades was reviewed at Sundance Film Festival on January 27, 2019.
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes or A Word With Aramide or tweet her @wordwitharamide