I was curious about “Selah and the Spades,” which released on Amazon Prime on Friday, Apr. 17, because it has received positive notices from some Indianapolis-area film critics and was garnering comparisons to movies like “School Daze,” “Heathers,” “Election,” “Brick,” “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and “Dear White People.” I can see the influence those films had on writer/director Tayarisha Poe, but the movie it most reminded me of is Justin Lin’s 2003 effort “Better Luck Tomorrow.” In both instances you have filmmakers that are people of color making their calling card features concerning high school kids dabbling in illegalities. Both movies also embrace and subvert stereotypes.
Lovie Simone stars as the titular Selah. She’s a cheerleader and fronts a faction known as the Spades at Haldwell Boarding School. The school is comprised of gangs – each gang serves its own purpose. The Bobbys, fronted by Bobby (Ana Mulvoy Ten), throw parties. The Skins, fronted by Amber B (Francesca Noel), run gambling operations. The C’s, fronted by Tarit (Henry Hunter Hall, late of Amazon’s “Hunters”), are brainiacs who sell term papers and exam answers. The Prefects, fronted by Two Tom (Evan Roe), run interference leaving the school’s teachers and administrators embodied by Headmaster Banton (Jesse Williams … it doesn’t seem like so long ago that he was playing a college kid in “The Cabin in the Woods”) oblivious to the students’ illicit activities. Selah runs the Spades alongside her right-hand man, Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome of “When They See Us”). The Spades handle the narcotics trade on Haldwell’s campus. The Spades are the crème de la crème of the factions, but they vie for that position against the Bobbys. Selah’s on her way out as she’s a senior, but wants assurance that the Spades will remain dominant. Enter Paloma (Celeste O’Connor), a sophomore scholarship student who works as a photographer for the school’s newspaper. Selah takes Paloma under her wing grooming her as a successor. Paloma observes whereas Selah acts, but she proves to be thoughtful and has a deft hand in faction dealings … this leads to infighting and jealousy as the pupil supersedes the sensei and does so somewhat cockily.
Selah is a complicated and driven character to the point of being cutthroat … whether friend or foe she takes second to no one. You gain great insight into her psyche during a phone call she’s having with her mother, Maybelle (Gina Torres of “Firefly” and “Serenity”). Selah tells Maybelle that she received a 93 on a calculus exam to which mother curtly asks daughter, “Where’s the other seven points?” My folks would’ve been psyched had I gotten a 93 on a mathematics exam let alone taken calculus.
Simone and O’Connor do a nice job. They’re both lovely and talented actresses that have bright futures ahead of them. Simone is appearing in an upcoming remake of “The Craft;” O’Connor has a role in “Ghostbusters: Afterlife.” Jerome gave my favorite performance in any piece of 2019 media with “When They See Us.” He’s not nearly as good here, but he’s also given far less to do and far less time to do it.
While “Selah and the Spades” didn’t totally connect with me, I have to give it credit for subverting stereotypes. Many of the “black movies” I watched as a kid were urban and more of their characters were thugs than weren’t (“Boyz n the Hood,” “Juice,” “Menace II Society” and “Dead Presidents” among them). Most of the students at Haldwell aren’t white. These kids of color are a portrait of intelligence and affluence. They’re dabbling in crime, but there’s nary a gun seen. This is a movie about tryhards that ultimately tries too hard. The whole enterprise feels affected. That said, I think Poe shows great promise as a filmmaker and I’m happy to see more folks that are young, women and people of color given an opportunity to tell their stories. I might just be too old, white and male to fully get on board. The hangover I was enduring while watching probably didn’t help either. #QuarantineCantina2020