Tayarisha Poe made a high school gangster movie, but she’s as interested in getting her audience to think about the stratification of the young as she is in exploring how teenage mafiosos function: how they divvy up territory, how they comport themselves both as a collective and as factions, how they decide the levers of power each faction controls, how they circumvent headmaster ordinances banning prom. Selah and the Spades’s slick style and high caliber performances, particularly Lovie Simone’s ferocious work as the title character, blend together as great entertainment, but it’s the consideration Poe shows to the plight of the modern American teen that makes the film so remarkable.
That plight now extends into the quarantine era of contemporary American history as teens stay inside their homes, separated from their friends and deprived of teenhood’s essence. Poe isn’t prescient; the reign of COVID-19 wasn’t part of her release plan. But like it or not, the way viewers see Selah and the Spades is all but guaranteed to change under the pandemic’s influence. Watching other kids, kids who look and talk just like them, enjoy the mundane (attending class) and miraculous (attending Gatsby-esque parties in the middle of the woods) amenities of youth is likely to stir a little nostalgia in teenage hearts—and optimism for what the world might look like when we’re all safe to venture beyond our front doors once more.
Paste spoke with Poe about what Selah and the Spades means to its audience under these awful circumstances:
Paste Magazine: I’m watching Selah and the Spades and thinking about the way it engages with the idea of control and teenagers having control over their lives and especially teenage girls having control over their bodies. Obviously you couldn’t have foreseen the COVID-19 pandemic, but do you feel like that sense of control is now even further lost from these teens now that we’re all stuck in our houses?
Tayarisha Poe: Yup. I’ve thought about that a lot, actually. Obviously the story was always about control, and controlling your life, and where you wanted to go in your life, but I didn’t understand how deeply that part of the story resonated with me as a writer until recently. I was talking to my mom on the phone and I was like, “Mom, I don’t know why I feel so ungrounded! I feel like I can’t grasp onto things right now in my mind.” She told me, “Tayarisha, this is the first time in your life that you can really, as an adult, remember not having control over your future.”
I was like, “Oh, cool, no big deal.” I really like to have control over my life. So, yeah, this moment in time has really shined a light on how much safety we get from that feeling of control. I feel for teenagers all the time, but right now—Jesus Christ, these guys cannot catch a break.
Paste: I want to complain about being a millennial going through my second economic crisis, but …
Poe: Bro, we really can’t catch a break! But at this point, millennials, we’re so used to things not working. Gen Z, the climate is the thing they really had to think about. Nobody was expecting the climate change problems and the pandemic, or at least no teenagers were really thinking about it. So maybe this is just life now. Millennials are the ones who will teach everybody else how to deal with the precarious nature of just existing.
Paste: That could be our calling!
Paste: “As bad as you think you have it, it gets worse.”
Poe: We could tell people that for sure.
Paste: For all the teens stuck at home, how do you expect them to feel watching your movie? What do you expect teenagers to walk away from your movie thinking?
Poe: Well, there are two things that come to mind. The first is that right now, because of this isolation, I’m hoping that people are thinking a lot about what life can be like when they’re allowed or able to come back together. And I hope that in thinking about that, realizing how we as humans both have the capacity to be damaged by other people, but also have that same capacity to damage others. So I really am hoping that teenagers take from this the knowledge that yes, people hurt us in life, but we also can hurt people.
And I think that when we think about that, and we think about the potential cyclical nature of that, people hurting people hurting people hurting people, I’m hoping that we slow down, take a breath and are a little bit more careful with people. Not careful as in like treating people like they’re fragile, but careful as in—and this is so simplistic, I know, but come on, it’s the golden rule—careful as in treating people the way we want to be treated. Honestly, I think that might be the point of the film.
Second, which I hope will resonate in this period of social isolation, is the final image of the film of just after everything is said and done, of these three kids holding each other and walking together side by side. When I was writing this story, it was important to me that no matter what anybody did in this film, no one would be left behind. Nobody would be rejected from their world or their friends, and I guess nobody would really be punished. It’s okay. I really wanted to make sure that I wasn’t judging them for their actions, but that I was just giving them space to try things on for size, and to fuck up, and get it right or not get it right. I hope that that image of being side by side with people who have a lot of stuff to talk about and a lot of stuff to work through, but who can still be side by side and can still help each other walk—I hope that that image stays with people.
Paste: I feel like Selah doesn’t need more punishment than she already gets from being her mother’s daughter.
Poe: I would agree with that! [laughs]
Paste: Mama Selah is brutal.
Poe: Yeah, but then you have to ask yourself: Is she really brutal, or is that just how Selah views her and feels about her at that time? I think it’s the latter. I think that’s what it is, but honestly, that’s what’s most important—how Selah feels about the situation and how she feels about the relationship. At the end of the day, her mom is just talking about where this girl is going to go to college. It’s not that big a deal. But for Selah, it feels like “my mom doesn’t even trust me to make a decision about my own life.” My God, that makes me really sad.
Paste: That’s extremely painful. Even acknowledging all of what Selah does throughout the film, it’s painful to watch her suffer that. But that contributes to that lack of self agency, which is a lot of weight for one person to carry. I also think that the crushing weight of expectation is part of the point of the film, and what that can do to a person.
Poe: Right, because it’s not just the expectations of others—it’s when you start to internalize the expectations of others and allow it to be your guiding force. It becomes less about what brings you contentment in life, and more about “Am I achieving my potential, and if I’m not, why not, and how can I be at all times?” I think that idea of “I must keep going, I must work harder, I must grind and grind and grind and get everything and have all the control. I have to have it all”—I feel like that’s a really American way of thinking. And the more press that I do, the more I talk about the film, the more I realize it is an American story. That’s such an American way, for me, of growing up, of going through these prep schools and never really having a chance to stop and ask myself, “Am I striving because I’m supposed to strive for more or am I striving for more because more will bring me some sort of fulfillment?” That’s something that I always think about with Selah: How much power is going to be enough for her and does she know? And I don’t think she knows yet, which makes me worry for her.
Paste: I felt similarly until that final shot of unity and people learning to finally lean on each other. But since this is such a distinctly American story, where does that quest—that lust for power—where does it end? For Selah, the end of the movie isn’t the end. Where does it go from there? Where can it go?
Poe: I think that thirst for power is unsustainable, personally. You know that Percy Shelley poem, “Ozymandias”? I shared it with everybody in the cast, with all the kids, all the actors. It’s something that we would reference often. It’s this poem about this great ruler, but the only thing that’s left of his work and his life and his rule and his chaos is this statue that’s decaying in the sand. That’s actually a really good representation of where power leads us, because it’s ultimately nowhere. Ultimately, you’re going to die and what people choose to do with your legacy isn’t up to you at all. It’s up to people who come after you who don’t exist yet. When I remember that for myself, it really calms me down, the knowledge that we are just blips, and we’re going to have an effect, positive or negative, and we’re going to influence somebody, even if it’s just a person who is living with us or somebody who we know personally. That’s doable. That can be enough for us.
Paste: Now I want to reread the poem and rewatch the movie with the poem in mind.
Poe: Hell yeah.
Paste: Americans really don’t do well with mortality, or, you know, controlling infectious diseases, or anything like that.
Poe: Even something like the beginning of the country is about control. The founding fathers’ so-called founding this country, they had this idea that we deserve self-determination, controlling our own future. Then they took that idea and controlled other people’s lands and their future. It’s just never enough.
Paste: Not just their land and their future, but their bodies, too. It’s all-encompassing.
Poe: Their bodies, their agency. Yeah. It became, “not only do I need to have control over myself, but I need to have control over everybody else too.” I’m talking way too much about America, but our way of operating is really “my way or the highway.” That’s what I mean by when I say it’s a very American movie.
Paste: So what we’re talking about when we talk about these kids at this boarding school is a generation, a collection of kids whose inheritance is the search for control?
Poe: Yeah, definitely.
Paste: That’s a sobering thought. Bringing it back to what we’re talking about as far as what teens can take out of the movie (though obviously this isn’t a movie for teens only): Do you believe your movie can help teens confront that legacy of control? If we’re talking about this as an American movie and if control is the American legacy, do you hope that’s something that teenagers will be able to reconcile with?
Poe: I don’t think they need me or this movie to realize this—but I hope that it gives them a little bit more permission to take up space. Knowing that not only can you take up space, but that you deserve to take up space because you know as much or as little as adults … well, it’s easier for me to talk about it when I talk about kids. I have a niece and two nephews. The oldest one is nine, the youngest one is five. The way that we talk to them is as though they are smart enough to understand what we’re saying, so we don’t talk down to them like they’re little kids. I just talk to them like they’re people, which is the same way that my parents talked to us growing up, not as though we understand less because we are younger, but like we’re people who can understand ideas if they talk to us and reason through it with us. I guess I hope that teenagers watch this and understand that they are fully formed as they are, and there’s not some secret code of adulthood that they’re waiting for. What they are and what they’re wrestling with is serious enough to be taken seriously. They’re serious enough for me. I don’t know if that makes total sense, but that’s what I’m feeling. I want teenagers to feel fully formed as they are.
Boston-based pop culture critic Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste since 2013. He also writes words for The Playlist, WBUR’s The ARTery, Slant Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, Polygon, Thrillist, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.