Out today on Amazon Prime is SELAH AND THE SPADES, the feature film debut of Philly-based writer/director Tayarisha Poe. A brutally honest coming-of-age story, that’s a mix of gangster meets prep-school drama, the film is a dark look at power dynamics and drug culture at the teenage level.
In the film, the fictional PA boarding school Haldwell, on the outskirts of Philadelphia, has a student body that is run by five factions. Selah Summers (Lovie Simone) is a 17-year-old senior who runs The Spades, the dominant group of the five, as they supply students with drugs and alcohol.
Frustrated when best friend and partner in illegal activity Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome) becomes distracted by a new love, and as tensions rise between the factions, Selah lures enamored sophomore Paloma (Celeste O’Connor) as her protoge and heir to rule the Spades. But as she begins to fear losing the power that defines her, Selah’s actions become threatening and callous towards those who appear to be closest.
With admirable casting, that includes Greenleaf’s Simone in the lead, Gina Torres (Pearson, Suits), Jharrel Jerome (When They See Us, Moonlight), and Jesse Williams (Grey’s Anatomy, Little Fires Everywhere) as Headmaster Banton, “Selah” is a beautifully shot -not surprising since Poe is also a photographer – commentary of the perils of poor choices, power hunger, and drug abuse.
And with a primary cast that featured mostly persons of color, “Selah and The Spades” is a welcome entry into the coming-of-age genre, and an outside the norm look at life for African-American teens. Although I celebrate the aforementioned, I do believe that the story’s conclusion suffered a bit from lack of development (the film could have easily been a mini-series), and wasn’t as gripping as its first acts.
If I had to do a comparison, I would liken the film to Rick Famuyiwa’s 2015 hit “Dope,” for the mature teen and drug content only, as “Selah” is way more dark and dramatic than the aforementioned.
However, both focused on the dangers associated with the drug game and featured protagonists that had to weigh the consequences of their actions. And they both featured remarkable soundtracks, with amazing songs interspersed throughout.
In sum, I would rate SELAH AND THE SPADES 3 out of 5 on the MMTrometer, but caution that it is definitely more arthouse than my comparison, and if you’re looking for action it probably won’t be your cup of tea.
Let me know your thoughts when you check it out!
Until next thought, Thomasena