Selah and the Spades is a very unique film.
On the surface, it’s a typical teen film, albeit with a slight twist. Black teenagers at a bougie boarding school lead double lives, masking drug use and partying with school plays and cheerleading. The new girl at the school becomes friends with the Queen Bee and gets thrust right into the middle of the drama. If you’re not paying any attention, you’d think the fact that it stars Black teenagers, and that its titular character is a dark-skinned Black girl, is the most noteworthy thing about it.
If you’re paying a little bit of attention, you’ll see that this is not your typical teen drama at all; you’ll see that these kids are far more organized, enterprising and ruthless than you’d expect. The drugs, gambling, partying and cover-ups are to be done with extreme care and precision, lest you suffer the consequences. The first time I watched it, I (somewhat) jokingly called it one of the greatest mob movies ever made.
But the thing is, Selah and the Spades isn’t about that, either. This isn’t about the drugs or the parties. This film is about control. It’s about power: the desperate, bloody fight for — and cost of — absolute power.
With Selah and the Spades, writer and director Tayarisha Poe allows us to watch one Black girl’s journey to find and maintain her power in a world that is absolutely determined to strip her off it.
Selah does find her power; she holds onto it for dear life. The problem is, finding that power nearly costs her everything she’s ever wanted.
In order to tell this unique story about power, she creates a unique world. The film takes place within the walls of an upscale boarding school called Haldwell. At Haldwell, there are five Factions: the Skins, who deal in gambling; the Sea, who will help you cheat on any and every test; the Bobbies, who throw the secret parties; the Spades, who supply every drug known to man; and the Prefects, who make sure the administration doesn’t know what’s actually going on.
Selah Summers is the 17-year-old queen of Haldwell. She’s a senior, the captain of the school’s Spirit Squad and the leader of the Spades, the most powerful of the school’s Factions. Selah runs the Spades with an iron fist: you fuck up, you get fucked up. Plain and simple. There’s no way to avoid it. If you cost Selah her money, her time or her reputation, you gotta go, and you’re likely going to face a lot of violence on the way out.
But Selah isn’t a ruthless control freak for the sake of it, and Poe doesn’t portray her as a heartless villain. Selah does what she does because she feels she needs to. Selah’s got to have some aspect of her life that she controls, where she has the final say-so.
Mid-way through the movie, Selah gives a very astute lecture about how the world is always trying to break you down when you’re young. Selah talks about how everyone tries to control you: they try to control your body, your future, your life. Everyone’s always telling what to do, how to do it and how to look while doing it. They don’t give you any choices. Autonomy is non-existent. That’s why you have to snatch every bit of power and control that you can and hold onto it like your life depends on it.
Because your life does depend on it.
Poe doesn’t just use this speech to illustrate Selah’s view on autonomy and power. She actually goes to lengths to prove Selah right. Several times in the film, we’re introduced to the strained relationship between Selah and her mother, Maybelle. Maybelle can be politely described as “very strict.” If you’re being impolite about, you could probably say she’s a cold control freak. Maybelle’s the type of mother who gets mad at you for making a 93 instead of a 100 because “what happened to the other seven points?” She’s the type of mother who decides what college you’re going to and silences any dissent with a mere look. She’s the type of mother who tells you something is wrong with you because you don’t do things the way she would do them.
Maybelle takes all of the choices out of Selah’s life. She leaves Selah feeling powerless. So, Selah has found power at Haldwell.
But Selah will be leaving Haldwell soon; it’s the spring semester of her senior year, and that college her mother is forcing her to attend is staring her right in the face. Selah has no one to pass her power down to, no way to ensure that her legacy lives on.
Enter Paloma Davis, the new girl at school.
Paloma is not like the rest of the kids at Haldwell. She’s a day-student who’s there on scholarship, meaning she’s not rich like the other kids. She doesn’t really seem to dress and act like the other students we see. Paloma’s only companion is her camera. She could easily get lost in the halls of Haldwell. Paloma’s an individual, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t want to fit in somewhere.
But then she meets Selah, this beautiful, captivating girl who seems to run the entire world. Selah sees potential in Paloma and decides to take her under her wing. Selah introduces Paloma to what’s really going on at Haldwell, bringing her to seniors-only events, and showing her all of the inner workings of the Factions. Selah doesn’t just make Paloma feel included; she makes Paloma feel important.
Selah and Paloma’s relationship is the most fascinating aspect of the movie for me because it shows just how far Selah is willing to go to maintain her power. Their relationship also shows exactly what this quest for power costs Selah and Paloma.
Their relationship doesn’t go exactly the way I’d figured it would. In any other movie, Selah would take sweet, innocent Paloma and transform her into a mini-Queen Bee, complete with a new look and attitude. Then they’d have a falling out only to have to make up when some shit goes down that puts everyone in jeopardy.
Selah does bring Paloma into this world, and Paloma does adapt very quickly and becomes Selah’s newest partner in crime. But Paloma isn’t as innocent as she seems at first blush. We see that she’s capable of her own form of obsession and manipulation when she starts butting heads with Selah’s best friend and right-hand man, Maxxie. When Maxxie gets a girlfriend and starts becoming distracted and sloppy, Paloma sees an opportunity to edge him out of Selah’s orbit. When it’s time to beat the hell out of a sophomore who threatens their operation, Selah pushes Paloma to do it, and Paloma accepts the task, leaving the scene with bruised and bloody knuckles and proving she’s completely devoted to their friendship. And when Selah has to fire Maxxie, Paloma slides right into the space he’s left.
There’s a complex game of give-and-take going on with Selah and Paloma. Selah gives Paloma a sense of importance and power, making her feel strong. Paloma gives Selah space to actually be vulnerable; throughout the film, she tells Selah that she doesn’t have to be perfect, that she’s here to have Selah’s back. Selah even has a breakdown in front of Paloma, and Paloma holds her, reminds her to breathe and tells her it’s okay.
Selah and Paloma need each other. They give each other something no one else has been able to give them.
But their relationship isn’t healthy. It can’t be, because Selah’s desire for control trumps her need to feel loved and cared for. Selah’s willing to throw away what she has with Paloma to retain her power.
When the school’s headmaster becomes weary of the student body’s shenanigans and cancels prom, Paloma steps up to the plate and directs the Factions to throw their own prom. Paloma does such a good job taking charge that Selah starts to realize that she’s not needed anymore. And if Paloma doesn’t need Selah, then Selah can’t control their relationship.
To make matters worse, Paloma begins to talk to Selah’s rival, press her about a situation Selah’s tried to bury and tells Selah that she’s going to be doing things differently than Selah does. It all paints a very bleak picture for Selah.
So, Selah drugs Paloma. To “humble” her. But, really, it’s so that Paloma is incapacitated without Selah.
But, Selah loses control of that situation, too. Paloma ends up taking way more drugs than Selah intended, and Selah loses track of her. Selah has to run to Maxxie — who she’d violently expelled from her life — for help, and he forces her to tell Paloma the truth. Paloma’s reaction to finding out Selah drugged her is the closest Selah gets to facing consequences for her actions: Paloma punches her in the face and runs off.
Paloma ends up on the wrong side of a railing — and a cliff — and Selah and Maxxie have to hoist her to safety. As Maxxie walks away with Paloma, Selah stands there looking at the railing, seeming to realize just how horribly this situation could’ve ended. What would’ve happened if Paloma fell from that cliff?
The film ends with Selah, Paloma and Maxxie walking away together, Selah sandwiched between these two loyal friends she’s wronged. Selah looks between them with tears in her eyes, and the look on her face made me feel that she could never truly apologize for all she’s done, no matter how much she would want to.
Selah’s quest for power has hurt her and the people around her. It’s nearly ruined everything. And she’s in so deep that she’s not even sure she can leave it behind.
When I think of Selah Summers, a quote pops into my mind: “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” There’s no “good” ending for someone like Selah, because the hunger and fight for power can only lead to more suffering. As this film shows us, this type of power cannot exist in the same space as love. You have to trade one for the other. And the trade-off is rarely worth it.