Review: ‘Selah and the Spades’ Takes a Shakespearean Approach to Boarding School Life

Written By: Nina N. Yeboah @gotmyniinaa

It’s all about power at Haldwell Boarding School in the film Selah and the Spades.

The new headmaster plays a slow, investigative game before he lays down any punishment. The students at the prestigious school, however, have been at it longer. They easily assemble against him. But amongst each other, they strategize, struggle, plot, and bargain via organized factions. In the constraints of boarding school life, creativity abounds with each faction specializing in a provision of vices. The Spades, who peddle illicit substances, are led by 17-year-old senior, Selah Summers (Lovie Simone). 

Selah is less charming than she is relentless. She has gained her status by being the best and always wanting to be the best. There is no question of likability when it comes to Selah. She’s a leader because she’s committed to remaining on top. But nearing graduation, Selah is faced withing a challenge: she’s yet to find someone to take up her mantle. In this debut feature, writer-director Tayarisha Poe takes a Shakespearean approach to narrating Selah’s pursuit of a legacy.

Selah and the Spades
Selah and the Spades

As with any ruler, Selah has those whom she keeps close. Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome) is as close to a confidante as one can be to Selah. Even if he doesn’t always call her out, Maxxie sees through to what Selah wants to hide from the world. He hasn’t been the only one Selah’s kept by her side, but he’s managed to ride the wave and survive the worst of Selah. 

Then there’s Paloma (Celeste O’Connor), who’s just enrolled as a sophomore at Haldwell. She’s open-hearted and unafraid of her curiosity or desire. She’s unafraid of herself, but she’s also a new girl, only able to attend Haldwell on scholarship. Selah is quick to offer her companionship but Poe does not take her down any worn paths of the new student. Selah holds sway over Paloma. But through Paloma, an obfuscating desire is unchained in Selah. Selah can’t see what we see in Paloma, lest she sees a threat. Instead, she sees what she’s focused on: an opportunity to cement her legacy. This is where the pull of the film lies: discovering who Selah truly is. 

Just as with Maxxie, Selah and Paloma’s relationship holds importance in the images of Black friendship across and within gender, yet Poe doesn’t overstate this. Selah, Maxxie and Paloma are in a game of power that Poe has set, not the game of representation that our world insists on. Here in Poe’s creation, their relationships are gifted the dynamic nature of the power game. 

In a media landscape where makers commodify Blackness to drive a plot, it’s refreshing that Selah is a Black girl that doesn’t need to sell you on her Blackness. But it’s a glaring omission that Selah never directly addresses racism she might experience at Haldwell. It’s not that Selah is unaware of the ways the world seeks to disempower girlhood. In her spirit squad monologue (which is featured in the film’s trailer), Selah explains as much, “When you’re seventeen and when you’re a girl, you’ve got the whole world telling you what to do with your body.” We know that experience of policing is racialized as much as it is gendered for Black girls. 

Selah and the Spades

And when it comes to sex, Selah simultaneously honors her experience of desire while protecting herself from its vulnerabilities. As she explains to the more experienced Paloma, she’s a virgin, not because she’s waiting but because she simply isn’t interested.  It’s not just that she’s asexual but that her sexuality is an extension of desire for power - she sees what sex and romance does to other girls (“I see them crying in the bathroom”) and she simply chooses to put her energy where she is less vulnerable. 

As it turns out, the only power dynamic that holds anything over Selah is that of the mother-daughter. Played by Gina Torres, Selah’s mother is far more severe than Selah could ever be on campus. She’s the challenge that Selah will likely never meet. Their relationship reminds us that Selah is a 17-year-old girl at a significant juncture in life. Her need to maintain power and to create a legacy surely has nefarious intentions and outcomes but also she’s a teen girl with the whole world at her neck.

Selah and the Spades diverges from the average teen drama. As much as the culture of Haldwell is orchestrated around faction-peddled vices, the film does not yield deeply to the pleasure and pettiness of being a teen. Selah won’t be distracted by that mundane experience. She is not interested in romance, she is strategic and withholding in her friendships, and her nemesis proves to be more her own internal workings than any other faction leader. Selah and the Spades is a character-driven narrative about power; it just so happens that the protagonist is a 17-year-old Black girl at a boarding school. Lucky for us, Selah is a Black girl unburdened by representation and gifted with the prowess and flaws of a tragic ruler.

Nina is a reader, writer, and cultural worker. She lives in Stone Mountain, GA.

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