Tue. Oct 27th, 2020

Interview: ‘Selah and the Spades’ director Tayarisha Poe does not want Black actresses to be pigeonholed

Tayarisha Poe’s debut film Selah and the Spades is about how “absolute power will corrupt absolutely. At the Haldwell boarding school, different group factions competing for power, with Selah, leader of the Spades, at the center. Black coming of age stories are nothing new, but Poe flips it on its head, and gives her characters unique circumstances and problem solving skills, with no consequences for their actions–something rarely witnessed in Black cinema.

Cheerleader Selah (Lovie Simone), is a teenage sociopath. She’s the Teflon don at the top of Haldwell school hierarchy. She’s graduating soon, and looking for someone to take her place before she graduates. Her right hand man is Maxxie (Emmy award winner Jharrel Jerome), is the muscle and protects Selah from the members of other factions. Paloma (Celeste O’ Connor) is a wide-eyed transfer student who is embraced by Selah and seen as a potential replacement. Having no time to adjust to her new surroundings, Paloma is immediately swept up into the dark underbelly of the Haldwell hallways. Will Selah relinquish her power and move on? Or will she hold on to the bitter end–stomping on anyone who stands in her way.

We chatted with Poe about her boarding school days, love for Rian Johnson, and how she aims for Selah and the Spades to stand against the norm.

What was the inspiration for the film?  You take the coming of age genre and flip it, giving it that rare factor.  In fact, another movie Selah and the Spades reminds me of that was really unique in the experience of a young Black girl is Anna Rose Holmer’s film The Fits.

I’m really glad you brought that up! Anna, the director and one of the writers of the film, was the first person to ever hire me. I worked the social media accounts, and did still photography for The Fits

Wow, I didn’t know that! See, we get films with Black girls that are slightly similar, but I  remember The Fits being one of those films that put Black girls in rare environments, dealing with a rare situation.  So when I saw Selah and the Spades, it made me think along those lines. 

I went to boarding school for high school and I mean a big part of telling the story in this privileged space. I grew up in West Philadelphia, and went from that to living inside of this privileged bubble where I have some access while at the school.  However, I was fully aware this was temporary as I was existing in another reality that didn’t translate to real world access. All of this inspired the story. 

I also love hyper stylized cinema like Rian Johnson, who is a director I really love. He can build contained worlds that make the viewer feel they are inside a snow globe, and I wanted to recreate that feel with Selah and the Spades

Exactly! He’s really good at using few set pieces and building entire narratives within that space. 

I like watching movies that I know take place in reality, but there is one weird element that throws everything off balance. That’s what I love about The Fits. Something is happening to the students, but it’s never explained, and it doesn’t need to be because that isn’t the point. To me, you get to know characters the best in enclosed worlds, and that’s what I wanted to do for my film.

So would you say Selah the spaces is semi-autobiographical?

God, no! I just used various elements to craft these characters who exist inside of me.  I think pieces of them have existed throughout my life in people I’ve met, loved, or butted heads with. 

What is it about Lovie Simone that made her right for the part of Selah?

I didn’t meet her beforehand, but saw her audition tape. I was blown away by how much space she takes up on screen and that’s something I was drawn to. But it wasn’t until I met Lovie out of character, that I realized the depth of her charisma and talent. When she channels that charisma in through the character you can’t take your eyes off her. These are elements that serve Selah so effortlessly. 

What was the casting process like? Not only in terms of the film leads, but finding out what faction each actor would belong to. 

I worked with the brilliant casting director, Jessica Daniels. I was upfront with her about casting folks who were able to bring themselves to the characters, and how best they fit into these fictional roles and a fictional hierarchy. It was a fun, vibe kind of thing. Almost like a jigsaw puzzle.

Lovie Simone, Celeste O’Connor,  and Jharrel Jerome have amazing chemistry on screen. Was that something immediately, or did that come when production officially started?

There is always a risk with movies about friendship that things will appear unnatural, but for this group, it was immediate. As soon as the main trio connected, it was like they already knew each other from a past life or something.  The camaraderie between them is so genuine, it leaps off the screen.

I want to talk about Selah being an abject sociopath.  I was having a discussion with a friend about how calculated and scary Selah is in her actions. She’s not reckless, but patient and extremely persuasive. Rarely does she raise her voice, but others are terrified of her. Not a role Black actresses often get. 

Black actresses are pigeonholed into certain roles. We’re always suffering trauma after trauma after trauma, or we’re meant to be saintly, compassionate, caregiving people. But what if we just want power? And how can we manifest that power without trauma, or self sacrifice? It’s a struggle to watch the way the media portrays of Black women, which is nothing but Black women acting out tropes.  

People are quick to decide that Black girls and women are angry, when they just want people to listen. With Selah and the Spades,  I wanted to show as many different types of Black girls as possible, and I wanted them to be fully realized. That was my goal. That will always be my goal. 

Selah and the Spades is currently available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.

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