Selah and the spades was originally showed on January 2019 at Sundance festival but it’s been distributed by the platform Amazon, on April 17th 2020. Produced by Tayarisha Poe, the movie is a marvelous mix of deep and complex subjects. Thanks to its rich and talented casting (Jessie Williams as the principal and Gina Torres as Selah’s mother), the movie is excellent. It’s been a long time since I have seen a movie like this maybe since Get Out (2017) or Dear white people (2014). In the world of private and elitist American high school, Selah is the queen and she’s ready to keep her throne, but by which measures ?
A LITTLE EXPLANATION
We already know that high school is a cruel space. Even through the multiple movies and tv shows we all know, we are every time thrilled by a new crusty teen story especially when it’s conscious and dark. Selah and the spades is excellent in this category.
The story takes place in a private high school, that we know is near Philadelphia (USA). This high school is divided in « factions ». Selah is the ultimate powerful girl running this private school. Lost in a not very well located space in Pennsylvania, Selah is the queen. Wherever she goes, people from freshmen to seniors welcome her. Popular, bold and brilliant, she got all the social weapons. Plus, she is the captain of the pom pom girls crew, the top of the social hierarchy. By the way, Selah runs and deal all with the real things that maintain a high school: drugs and alcohol. From secret parties and senior inflation rites, Selah and the spades is a depiction of the magnitude of beauty and danger of prohibition and its transgressions. From her secret ancient box, she controls everything. Her best friend, Maxxie (played by the excellent Jharell Jerome) is a personal extension of her, but he is a boy. Selah and Maxxie guide the spades, they are loud, in control and nobody can test them. The spades are the others, like in card games, they don’t really count. Until this famous day comes when the new ingenue enters the place : Paloma played by Celeste O’Connor (you know the new one is always disturbing the game). Paloma is the perfect misfit : passionate about photographs, in the newspapers club of the school and she kinda have this « whenever I want to do, I do it » vibe. She is practically the alter ego of Selah. But still, Selah thinks she’s got « the gut » but the gut for what? Selah indirectly teaches Paloma to maybe take control of the kingdom. The drug traffic ; how to assure a pacified social atmosphere and mostly, to be fucking respected. But like in every dynasty, someone always fucks everything up.
THE SPICY TWISTS
Maxxie had a little confusion with the ledger and the spades want some counts. At the same time, Paloma is more than ready to prove that she can replace Maxxie. A war of egos happened. Maxxie betrayed and abandoned is ready to finally enjoy his youth with a girlfriend. Paloma is proving to Selah she’s ready to take control. But at what cost ? Like a Shakespearean tragedy, the tension is everywhere. How has high school gotten that crazy. To add a little complication, the principal tired of the elevated imagination of his students, decides to cancel the senior ball. After a reunion between the lords of school, Bobby stands up next to a depressed Selah, broken by the end of her friendship and decides to organize the prom with the complicity of all the factions. Paloma is everywhere, she’s the new Selah. Selah is always here next to Paloma at every step, but she doesn’t talk, she just watches until the night of prom.It’s prom night. Paloma and Selah deal the stock of drugs with everybody. Then go for a walk.
Here comes the monologue of the damned. Paloma claims that she did everything, the prom, that she took care of the problems around (she clearly did). Selah realizes that she is loosing her puppet, so she put some pills in her bottle that she friendly shares with Paloma. Paloma, as reckless as she is, has the talent to be the leader but she is still young. After her poisoned drink, she adds cocaine and the world collapsed. Selah goes immediately to see Maxxie to explain what happened. The two of them are now searching Paloma, who is rumbling around. Now on the dance floor, we have entered a new dimension. Paloma is confused, we can feel her dizziness. Selah and Maxxie appear and disappear, I personally didn’t know if it was intentional or in the script, this was a big scene. When Selah and Maxxie find Paloma, they scream at her, once again I don’t know if they had good intentions or they just wanted to wake up her. Finally, the meltdown. Selah reveals that she has drugged Bobby « to humble » her. Paloma slaps her and runs in the woods, like a abandoned princess. And in the dark, she fails to kill herself. Selah and Maxxie come at the rescue. The abuser is suddenly the hero. Selah stands up in the attempt to do something dangerous but she is stopped by Maxxie. The three of them go back to civilization, quietly and shocked especially Selah.
THE MEANINGS AND THE IMPLICIT MESSAGES
Selah and the spades is a spectacular teen tragedy. Those teenagers, growing in an elitist world, always want to mess things up. But Selah is not rich maybe wealthy. Selah’s mother is the perfect archetype of the tyrant that knows her daughter more than her. But Selah appears the be her mother’s daughter. She is repeating her mother’s failures. With no children, she directs and controls everybody else. Like in The movie Waves (2020), I have assisted to the downfall of a another talented black teen. Selah, the queen of the school was trying to prove that she’s the best. But high school is not eternal. A new world is waiting for her, but she is too scared of the unknown. High school is a comfort place, like the famous Allegory of Plato’s cave, she doesn’t want to see the real world, a world where she might not be recognized, a world that will reveal her truth and where she might be mashed by the numerical mass. No strings attached, no boyfriend, she’s on her own. Even her friends are at her service. Paloma was her new annual project and psychological prototype. But the student outgrows the master, like they sometimes do. Paloma was finally just a puppet who decided to cut its strings, maybe too early. And when the experiment failed, the queen from her throne, stands up and cut the failed attempt. Selah and the spades magically brings us into this disturbed world of high school, where the factions are the real social categories that we all know by the cinematography sociology but in the real world, are more tense. The movie just show us that they are different social and economical universes, hidden in the hoods, where some privileged youths are running things far from their parents and exploring the possibilities of their powers. Selah and the spades is a good depiction of a middle age society, where the queen is strayed away and still the kingdom still living without her. But a queen always comes back.
Inside this big ancient mansion, lost in a humid, natural and stunning place, the atmosphere is fantastic. We are not in the real world. The movie is beautiful, from the highlight of the brown skins to the contrast of the trees and the dark. I felt like I was watching Lemonade visual album and A Seat at the table videos. Such a Southern atmosphere. At the end of the movie, when Selah realizes that this time, her actions would not disappear by magic, we can see that she is totally scared, scared of what is coming, scared of the falling of her powers and scared of the discovery of her real face, by the others and especially the outside world, so her mom. Selah and the spades is political, psychological and sociological. Every strong queen has been raised by a stronger one. Outside of the supreme queen castle, the little queen makes the world dance and her powers are limited, because she maybe didn’t listen enough or maybe because, as it is for Paloma, she took possession of the crown too early. She has mastered the art of hiding her sickness and egocentrism more easily than Paloma. And finally, Selah is the incarnation of the perfect and gaslighted black girl. And she has this double standard to be a brown skinned girl, who has been put aside by a new light skinned girl, her new puppet that took Selah’s accomplishments for granted. Pushed and raised to reach an invisible level, she seems to shed the pressure on control and hurting people like she has always been hurt and misunderstood. Selah and the spades is above all, the embodiment of the curses of being the perfect and strong black girl. She is seen but never heard.
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