Prep school dramas, whether in novels or films, are generally the domain of privileged white students (with their token minority familiars in tow). For narrative engagement, the protagonists are usually poor-to-working class white strivers, hungry for the promise of being able to overcome their meager circumstances and taking their rightful place at the main table. In some ways, these stories are classic American Dream myths, wish fulfillment fantasies that do come true and offer happy endings, which are little more than destiny.
It is far more fascinating to watch what happens when someone other than a white character takes center stage. Classic literature, like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, never even gives the protagonist the chance to enter those hallowed halls. Instead his opportunity detours into a tragic odyssey that is the embodiment of the nightmarish reality of life on the lower frequencies in this country. Even when we’re granted the chance to wander those campuses, our ever-afters are never happy. Think Mekhi Phifer as Odin James in Tim Blake Nelson’s O, which was an updating of Shakespeare’s Othello. Granting him god-like status via changing his name didn’t alter the headlong rush into oblivion.
Writer-director Tayarisha Poe dares to dream even more impossibly in Selah and the Spades, her feature debut which premiered early this year at Sundance. Investigating the factions ruling the underground life of the prestigious east coast Haldwell School, Poe’s narrative sets up Selah Summers (Lovie Simone), a young Black woman as the Mafia-like leader of the packs. And Selah, the head of The Spades, is ruthless, cunning, and charismatic. Towing the line between being loved and feared by everyone on campus, Selah fights to stay above the realms she controls – whether the female dance team, campus politics, or the drug and party scene.
Selah always keeps her eyes on the prize, typical of the stereotype of Black students in such situations. Our presence – either from scholarships (and the presumptions of quotas or affirmative action) or based on upwardly-mobile families seeking to secure their status while forgetting or simply not worrying about other marginalized folks down below – demands constant effort to maintain. There can be no slacking, no coasting, because one slip up means, not only are you removed from the field of play, but you also end up costing others like you the chance to get in the game.
This isn’t even a slightly un-typical teen comedy like last year’s Booksmart, which gave audiences a pair of academic over-achievers in Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) who longed to finally cut loose after four years of myopically putting in the work to make sure they would be able to attend college and create new paths for themselves, without realizing that everyone else had enjoyed themselves and earned tickets to their next level goals. Selah couldn’t have survived if she had underestimated everyone around her like Amy and Molly.
The white students at Haldwell or any other school like it across America, from any period since such schools opened their doors have never had those kinds of expectations placed on them. Legacy kids have been able to stroll in without living up to the minimum standards in some cases and have known they would be able to advance to Ivy League universities the same way. Just sit back, enjoy the drugs and the parties and the access to the good life, generationally, forever.
Watching Selah, we understand that’s not her situation. She’s the young Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro) in The Godfather, Part II, after having taken out Don Fanucci (Gastone Moschin), with the whole neighborhood coming to pay homage and asking for favors. She’s set up shop, got a solid consigliere in her best friend Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome) who helps maintain the supply and keeps the books in order, but she’s a senior and realizing there’s a different kind of legacy at stake for The Spades. Who’s going to step up, step in and take over once she’s gone? Who can she trust?
The more interesting question that emerges though is whether or not this very real power structure that she’s in charge of is something that can travel with her to the next level. Will she be able to enter a new environment (college), assess the players, make a play, and seize control again (and again, four years after that, in the real world)?
This future possibility reminds me of Justin Simien’s Dear White People, both the film and the Netflix series, because it feels like an example of Selah’s life after graduation, with heightened stakes, where issues of race, which remain understated – or at least largely unspoken – in Selah and the Spades, bum rush to the forefront along with the complications of sexuality. Maxxie succumbs to romantic feelings and loses his way and right-hand seat next to Selah, but she somehow remains above it all. Power is her drug and the instrument of her fall.
As a Black film critic who attended both a prestigious prep school (The McCallie School in Chattanooga, TN) and an Ivy League school (University of Pennsylvania), the worlds of Selah and the Spades and Dear White People feel somewhat familiar, despite the fact that my time in these environments came almost 30 years ago. It makes me wonder if the situations or those institutions changed that much over time, especially for students of color?
Without a doubt, there are far more people of color on Haldwell’s campus than in the late-80s, when there were less than 30 Black students out of over 600. I was a late arrival to the scene, entering as a junior, but I remember, as a boarding student, being able to become a “prefect” (a member of the advisory council in my senior dorm), but I didn’t gain any particular underground status. I was a studious follower of the guidelines of the school.
It was a small school, a tight-knit community, so I knew guys who partied and knew how to bend, say, curfew rules. It goes without saying that I recognized that I couldn’t dare such things. The closest I came to bucking authority was having what was considered an improper haircut – known back in the day as a ducktail. For about a week, I found myself in a power struggle with a teacher about my slight Afro bump on my neckline, which was far shorter in length than the hair of most of my white classmates, but in the end, I shaved it off. My eyes were on a bigger prize.
By the time I got to college, the world opened up more and I endeavored to get involved. I wanted to become as fully invested in the four-year experience, since I felt like I had missed out on some of that at prep school. Diversity was a buzzword, even in the late-80s and early-90s, and I felt it all around. The world went from black and white to being full of color and difference and a pressure cooker level of tension.
And I entered it fearlessly. Joining groups, taking part in marches and rallies, talking to everyone I could, attending services of all kinds, whatever I could. Exposing myself to all that I could helped me define myself, for myself. What does it mean to be black? Nerd? Film and/or writing obsessed?
I wasn’t living an underground existence. I wasn’t in charge of a secret world, unless, of course, you consider that I was my secret world. I was preparing for my own takeover, an internal power and paradigm shift.
Which leads me back to Poe’s film. When can Selah simply be Selah (whoever that is)? She meets Paloma (Celeste O’Connor), an underclassman taking photographs and slowly begins to let her inside. We’re supposed to imagine that Selah sees something of herself in Paloma and starts to dream that this young woman could be her protege, possibly like she was taken under the wing of the former leader of The Spades or another faction.
We catch glimpses of adults on the periphery – the school’s headmaster, Selah’s parents – but like the police or other authority figures in Hitchcock films, they don’t exert any pull over campus or Selah’s life. They try. They long to, but the only person in control of Selah is…Selah, I suppose. But without truly knowing what she wants or who she is, what is there to control?
What is the difference between her and Maxxie? He stumbles and gets demoted, but has a relationship to fall back on.
In the end, Selah is unknown and invisible to everyone, most of all, herself. (Selah and the Spades is now available on Amazon.)