Ten minutes in you’ll still be trying to figure out: is this movie black? Is it utopian? Is it confused? Is it trying to be race blind? Turns out it’s all of these things. And more.
Selah and the Spades is at its core an effort by emerging West Philly filmmaker Tayarisha Poe to imagine the world as it should be, imperfect, yet devoid of racism, classism, or sexism.
You soon notice that there are at least 2 black people in almost every scene, even though the film is set in what is supposed to be an elite boarding school in Pennsylvania. The student body is predominantly white, yet everyone fits in and seems to be comfortable in their own skin. There is no sense of otherness in this movie. All accept their equal footing in this world.
Also noticeably absent are teachers. But unlike Lord of the Flies this community of mostly self-governing kids doesn’t devolve into unbridled incivility and mayhem. Instead it is well mannered, and the movie becomes a genteel psychological study, quiet in its pacing and sound.
Of course, its heroine is against type for a black teen flick. Selah is not interested in sex, dating, or boys because her home life is a mess, the skeletons refuse to stop rattling in her closet, and she can’t risk the weakness of vulnerability, or the surrender of control, which too often comes with sex for girls.
A winning idea and strong performances from a well assembled troupe are tempered by a banal soundtrack and uneven execution. Ultimately, Poe never decides what story she’s telling about Selah. And so, we’re left with a sigh, imagining what could’ve, or should’ve, been.