‘Okay. Bobby, it’s just so funny to me that you really believe after all these years you could do what I do for even a second of your life.’
Drugs, violence, illicit meetings, ace relationships, friendship break-ups and if we’re being honest, attempted murder; this is the honest and completely plausible world of Haldwell. Home to five factions which control the school the topmost, the Spades, run by Selah Summers.
Selah and the Spades is the debut feature from Sundance Institute alumni Tayarisha Poe, which first premiered at the festival 2019 before its April release on Amazon Prime. In an interview with Poe earlier this year, the film is said to showcase the ‘volatility of being alive.’ Now pending a fourth watch, I conclude that no better description exists. Responses are varied, confusion tows the line between a hit or a miss. However, let’s see this as a new kind of movie speaking to what Barry Jenkins calls ‘a specific experience’. The film’s charm lies in many areas. For one, its choice cast, its visuals, its plot but but my heart is taken first by its world building.
Haldwell, the elite boarding school and the grounds on which most of the movie takes place is its own world. This makes sense because boarding schools are a front. Usually separate from city life, these institutions exist on a large expanse, an illusion of grandeur to appeal to parents and give students a false pretense of having space and freedom. They are grounds to instil academic excellence and approved extra-curricular activities. For full-time and even weekly boarders, the days are the days and they’re spent ‘confined’ (for lack of a better word) to these spaces. Haldwell’s Five Factions are a counter-narrative, an elaborate scheme to suck the Thoreausque marrow of boarding life. This network of students run by and for the betterment of student life, provides services via gambling, cheating, cover-ups, taboo parties and the key illicit drug trade of the Spades. Selah (Lovie Simone), her right-hand Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome) and newcomer Paloma (Celeste O’Connor), serves as the fabric that holds a system together, providing a facade that illustrates administrative power whilst executing an otherwise reality.
Like all high-school and mob movies, there is a hierarchy, there are rules and there are disruptors. It makes sense then that Haldwell — with its broad fields in the middle of nowhere, its secret meetings and unapproved parties — is already lived in, an established institution to the point that it feels like its foundation lie on a pre-existing publication. It is because of this that laws by which they govern themselves work firmly marking Haldwell as its own place. It made the stakes much higher and the characterisation much more intense. It’s a Black high school mob movie so to speak, that doesn’t have to announce itself in a specific grounding or overemphasis. This is Haldwell. These are the people in it and the lives they live. You take it as is.
There have been comments on how slow its pacing is, the last half hour being the most pivotal. And while that’s a valid point, it’s also reductive. Just as Biblically, all good things come together for the greater good, so does this. Like a jigsaw puzzle, everything fits and every piece has its place. The film begins with a quote from Ozma of Oz, a clear display of violence that is written off as a casual statement. This is testament to the insidious going-ons within the school.
The choice to include this specific quote is deliberate. It’s a testament to Poe’s craftsmanship with each cause neatly unraveling the extent of its consequential effect with each watch. This quote is the first indicator of Selah’s force and position at Haldwell, and this unfurling is, simply put, talent.
‘The question isn’t who’s gonna let me? It’s who’s gonna stop me?’ — Selah Summers
There’s something to be said about the film’s simplicity in story and complexity of character. As with all established artwork, it does encourage response. However, while read critiques do have a place, none of them take away from the phenomenon of this movie because Tayarisha Poe is a moment, a force that writes characters that evoke strong responses allowing viewers root for a range of people blurring the lines of morality. Now a graduate, I understand even more its point of transition from the safety of a world you know into a world you don’t. More so in these times, I understand Selah’s want to hold on to the power she has as the safety she knows. But familiarity breeds disrespect, resulting in her friendship break-up with Maxxie but also allowing him to live up to his potential.
It’s both chilling and intriguing to watch how characters develop as they step into their own. There’s so much complexity, emotion, so much villainy and power and yet, so much humanity. Yes, we’re talking about Selah’s unbecoming. How the extent of her (need for) control is like a folded napkin that reveals itself with each scene; but also how they’re an intricate part of how her character is made up.
The becoming of Paloma Davis was so peaceful that the sinister undertones almost go amiss. Paloma’s shift from an innocent protégé to a threat was interesting to see. The change in tone from an alluring essence ‘that just makes me want to show her all that she's capable of’ to an antagonist because, as Maxxie says ‘she reminds you of you’.
The film is poetic and definitely creative, slipping in different facets of teenage life and girlhood. First in a spoken word featurette by Selah and her cheerleaders about growing up. ‘They always try and break you down when you’re 17’. And the ways in which even Haldwell girls are not exempt from real life sexism.
A source of its power ultimately lies in the relationship between Selah and Paloma which has been a source of debate due to their apparent tension. And to be honest, yes. The chemistry between the two women is one for the books. The growth and relationship between them is a captivating expression of love in an explosive friendship and the exploration of asexuality which is rarely (if ever) clearly portrayed on screen. A meticulous decision, Poe has stated that their relationship ‘was not a story about romance’ but rather ‘that power struggle that happens between friends.’
A final point is the music, with one song in particular standing out. It takes place in one of my favourite scenes with the aforementioned duo as they listen to Infinince or Infinity by Terence Nance aka Terence Etc. As written for Decolonise Fest, this song is healing, like coming home. It makes you feel like an edgeless body, like a gliding spirit. The sheer peace and openness is true of the beginning of the relationship we see between Selah and Paloma. Selah and the Spades is as beautiful to watch as it is to listen to, a shout-out to Aska Matsumiya’s choice in music and Jomo Fray’s cinematography.