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“Selah and the Spades:” How to Subvert a Genre and Make It Your Own

“It’s not about you having all the right ideas. As a director, it’s about how can we have the same goal and collaborate on the best way to get there, not telling people what to do.”

Writer-director Tayarisha Poe’s Selah and the Spades is set at a Pennsylvania boarding school broken into competing cliques. 17-year-old Selah Summers (Lovie Simone) runs the leading student faction, the pills-and-alcohol-purveying Spades. Selah is training an ambitious protégé, Paloma (Celeste O’Connor), to run the faction after her graduation. But her best friend Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome) is caught up in a new romance, and Selah feels herself losing control.

Selah and the Spades has earned comparisons to films including Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, Rian Johnson’s Brick, Mark Waters’ Mean Girls and Spike Lee’s School Daze, though many viewers observed that Poe is already developing a distinctive style all her own. “Think of how many debuts of fresh young filmmakers you’ve seen over the years,” writes critic David Fear in his enthusiastic Rolling Stone review, “and how that initial spark eventually gifted us with careers defined by exponential level-ups. That’s how you feel watching this.”

At Vulture, critic Alison Willmore welcomes Selah “to the canon of films about high school as a battleground” and notes that Amazon is exploring the idea of turning it into an ongoing series. No wonder, Willmore says: “It’s hard not to want to explore more of this world.”

Poe began working on the project back in 2014, when she wrote a series of short stories about the characters in the film and the world they inhabit. Those stories were eventually incorporated in a multimedia project called “Overture” that attracted the attention of producer Lauren McBride, who worked with Poe to get Selah and the Spades made.

Poe said one of the benefits of understanding the complex backstories of the characters was that, during production, it helped the actors understand their different perspectives on the world they inhabit. “Paloma is living in a romantic comedy, Selah is in The Godfather, and Maxxie is in a Jane Austen movie like Pride and Prejudice,” Poe said. “The actors would debate what their characters and factions might do in these hypothetical situations they came up with during downtime — it was like they were writing fan fiction as the story was happening.”

Poe told interviewer Stephen Saito at The Moveable Fest that collaboration was key to bringing the world she originally imagined to life on the screen. For example, she cites the work production designer Valeria de Felice did to imagine the school’s production of Macbeth, with set dressing that resembles blood dripping from the ceiling onto the stage. “I love collaborating, and I love letting people in and sharing my thoughts and life with other people,” Poe said. “It’s not about you having all the right ideas. As a director, it’s about how can we have the same goal and collaborate on the best way to get there, not telling people what to do.”

Cinematographer Jomo Fray said in an interview with ARRIChannel that he shot Selah with the ARRI Alexa Mini in part due to its mobility and flexibility in a variety of different rigs. “A lot of our approach was using mirrors and large HMIs to create a naturalism around the light,” he said. “The performances are very stylized and the world is very stylized and couched in artifice, even in our photographic style, but I wanted the light to feel honest. I wanted the light to feel authentic in a way that sharpened those juxtapositions — sharpened the fact that someone is performing.”

Poe and Fray have both referred to the film’s style as “savage formalism,” citing Rihanna’s music as an influence. “It was savage in the way of Rihanna’s Anti album, meaning cold, powerful, brutal and bold,” Fray told Variety. Poe elaborated on that idea at Moveable Fest, explaining that “savage formalism” also refers to the formalism of post-war brutalist architecture before bringing it back to Rihanna’s reputation as “the coolest girl in the room.” “I like to tell people it’s just Rihanna who inspires us, which is true,” Poe explained. “But she also has admitted to being incredibly shy, so you have this public persona that you feel is so different from who you are when you’re alone or with your closest people, and that’s also what I think Selah is about.”

Read more: Selah and the Spades Cinematographer Explains How Rihanna’s Anti Inspired the Film’s Look

Poe also notes the compelling dramatic tension between the characters’ internal lives, where their actions make perfect moral sense, and their external behavior, which might seem more dubious to outside observers. “I like stories about people who do something that everyone agrees is wrong, but no one thinks they are wrong in doing it,” Poe told Filmmaker back in 2015. “And because I like these stories, I’m watching stories about men, and usually white men, because they’re the ones who can get away with it. But that’s not me and my experience.”

In fact, Poe seems poised for a career in telling complex character stories that can partially counteract Hollywood filmmaking’s long-running obsession with the stories of white guys. “I am always eager to see stories about the marginalia of black life, and more generally about the minutiae of being a human being,” Poe told IndieWire. “In film, in most Western storytelling, there is this false, persistent assumption that the relatable ‘everyman’ story can only be successful — and therefore must only be told — with white characters at the center of them. And that’s just not my jam.”