Selah And The Spades director Tayarisha Poe: I trust teens to lead now more than adults
Selah And The Spades shines a new light on high school politics – by encouraging viewers to take teenagers seriously, says writer-director Tayarisha Poe. Gemma Dunn enrols to find out more from her, and the film's star Lovie Simone
WHEN Tayarisha Poe was selected for the Sundance Screenwriters Lab in early 2017, her life as she knew it changed.
Until that point, the West Philadelphia native – whose tenacity also saw her accepted on to the Sundance Directors Lab the same year – had been trying to find her feet in the "real world" since graduating.
In her pursuit to be heard, she had started writing short stories (one every day for the month of November 2014, in fact), which she would eventually turn into a multimedia project called Overture.
"It's not the most conventional approach to making a movie but it worked," says Poe, whose initiative led to her being named as one of 25 New Faces by Filmmaker magazine in 2015 and later receiving the Sundance Institute's Knight Foundation Fellowship.
"I wound up spending so much time world-building and thinking about the lives of these kids, which in the end made the feature itself so much more complex and rich."
It was to be the start of something special for Poe – the prelude to her first feature film, Selah And The Spades.
Her debut – which premiered at Sundance last year – invites viewers in to the closed world of elite Pennsylvania boarding school Haldwell, where the student body is run by five supremely organised factions.
A 17-year-old senior Selah Summers (played by newcomer Lovie Simone) runs the most dominant group, the Spades, as they cater to the most classic of vices and supply students with illegal alcohol and pills.
By turns charming and callous, she chooses who to keep close and who to cut loose, walking the fine line between being feared and loved by her peers, including right hand man Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome) and protegee Paloma (Celeste O'Connor).
It's gangster movie meets high school teenage politics, Poe muses.
"From the project's inception, the first story I wrote was about Selah watching from afar as Maxxie beats up this kid who owes them money. It was about this girl who doesn't get her hands dirty; she sends other people to do her dirty work," she says. "That's the kind of story I've always been drawn to."
She continues: "I'd gone to boarding school and I felt like watching movies about high school was like watching a different world. It felt familiar, but it wasn't quite capturing the feeling for me of being a teenager and living away from home in this like privileged microcosm of society. That was a specific high school experience that I wanted to do my part for."
Poe is keen to point out that, while many of the social aspects are true to her own experience, her film is wholly fictionalised.
"A lot of teenagers feel written off because they're young. It's the age-old thing of, 'You're not listening to me because I'm a kid, but I'm an adult'.
"You find this biological impulse to be independent and declare yourself an adult ready to start your own family and live your own life, but society rules that you are not yet an adult – particularly in the United States," she says. "Well, I take teenagers seriously!"
She adds: "These days the internet allows teenagers to learn a lot more about other people; they have access to the entire world – for better or worse.
"But I trust more teenagers to lead the world now, than I do adults. Teenagers shouldn't have to think about the world burning, they shouldn't have to take the lead in situations, and they shouldn't have to be our moral compass. We should be able to lead them. That says more about us."
One such young person who has moved Poe is New Yorker Simone.
Her 21-year-old lead actor, she says, is tiny in size with a young face: "So to see her take up so much space in the frame and to draw all attention to her when she steps on the screen makes my heart stop!"
Describing how she felt when she read the script, Simone exclaims: "I was like, 'Oh my God, this whole world is surrounded by these teenage black kids – it seemed so magical!
"I've never seen that; it feels like a sacred space, so I really wanted to get into the world of Haldwell."
As for the audience reaction: "I've gotten that people don't really like Selah, but they love her," Simone says. "She's one of those characters. Like, 'Dang, I feel for you, but why do you have to be this way?'"
Can she relate to the pressure placed on teenagers, that Poe speaks of?
"Yes, it's definitely a time where I feel like every generation is looking at you, as a teenager. You have people looking up to you and you have people who are still telling you what to do."
She recalls Selah's opening scene – a powerful monologue which explores just how intoxicating power can be for a teenage girl who acutely feels the threat of being denied it.
"As a black woman, I definitely relate to that a lot," Simone notes. "There's a lot of people telling you how you need to be in order to be successful, or in order to be bright.
"Selah was telling people, 'Listen, I am not for you. I'm never going to be for your consumption, so you're just gonna have to chill and live your life over there'. I love that about her, because she is not going to compromise that."
:: Selah And The Spades is available to stream now on Amazon Prime.