How the World of ‘Selah and the Spades’ Was Created

The secret to “Selah and the Spades,” Tayarisha Poe’s incisive debut feature streaming on Amazon Prime, lies in its meticulous presentation of the director’s personal experiences and her pop culture obsessions. “It’s a combination of everything I’ve ever loved,” Poe said during a recent phone interview. Nearly every element of the film, which follows the drama surrounding its titular character and the boarding school faction she leads with unnerving authority, can be traced back to a text, a photograph or a concept she immersed herself in while writing, thinking and shooting. “It’s hard for me not to get into the details really early on, because it is world building for me,” Poe said. Here is a closer look at the influences that shaped the movie’s distinctive world.

Poe attended the Peddie School in Hightstown, N.J., and the most basic understanding of the film begins with her experience there. It was one she didn’t think much about until she attended college and realized that the environment she had just come from bred a specific set of routines. “It felt like you had your own rules about how you would behave and what you would wear and what you would say and do when you were on campus,” she said. “And then all of those things don’t matter the second you enter the real world.” In an attempt to capture how it feels when a mix of hormonal teenagers are thrown into an idyllic environment with seemingly absolute freedom, Poe created Haldwell, the fictional elite Pennsylvania boarding school the film’s characters attend.

During production, Poe constantly listened to the audiobook version of “The Secret History.” Donna Tartt’s sinister 1992 novel about five friends at a small college in the Northeast begins with a murder and quickly unravels into a story about a cultlike group of people. Poe is obsessed with the book, because its dark mood and the characters’ commitment to the rules of their group (even if it requires criminal activity) gave her permission to explore the full range of her own characters. “I felt inspired to let them go to heavy places. I know which of these characters can kill if they need to,” she said. “‘The Secret History’ taught me you have to know how dirty someone is willing to get in order to really understand them.”

This short story about a tense mother-daughter relationship was part of a reading packet that Poe distributed to her lead actors during preproduction. On the surface the story is prescriptive — a mother doling out advice to her daughter — but it’s layered with accusations that reveal the fault lines in how the two relate. The story inspired Selah’s relationship with her mother, whose disapproval of her daughter can be felt even in scenes without the mother in them.

As a Wes Anderson superfan, Poe happily claims many of the filmmaker’s works as favorites, from “The Royal Tenenbaums” to “Moonrise Kingdom.” And she is quick to point out that Anderson influenced her own work, but not in the way one might expect. While shooting “Selah and the Spades,” Poe and her cinematographer, Jomo Fray, often asked each other variations of the question: “What would this movie look like if it were made by Wes Anderson, but Wes Anderson has had more than five conversations with black people in his life?” The refrain was born of a frustration with not seeing herself represented onscreen. But that made her all the more determined to figure out what exactly she loved about Anderson’s films and do it herself. The results are on display in her own film’s ethereal visuals, which heighten the drama around its complicated characters.

Poe and Fray also looked to the pop star and mogul Rihanna for inspiration, specifically her 2016 album “Anti.” The filmmakers created “savage formalism,” a visual language based on Rihanna’s use of the word “savage” on the song “Needed Me.” It represents the mood of Haldwell and its factions, a kind of serenity and cool haunted by brutality and the threat of violence. But Poe is also intrigued by Rihanna as a public figure and her reserved relatability. “She seems to understand something about being famous that a lot of people do not understand,” Poe said. In the last decade, the Barbadian singer has managed to be accessible to fans without relinquishing her own privacy, an act that requires equal parts self-assuredness and vulnerability. And that, Poe said, is the balance Selah spends the film trying to master.

For Poe, Rookie, the now-defunct online magazine started by Tavi Gevinson, represented the best digital translation of zine culture she had ever come across. It captured what it meant to be a young woman on the internet, and it also introduced Poe to the work of the photographer Petra Collins, whose early photographs were published there. “She is somebody who always treated her girl subjects seriously, and I really admire that about her art,” Poe said. Collins’s photographs possess a surreal quality, and the style of particular scenes in Poe’s film resembles them.

The complex legacies of revolutionary figures like Huey P. Newton, a co-founder of the Black Panther Party, fascinate Poe. Growing up, she was mostly interested in the Black Panthers and their social services and programs. But as she got older, she became more curious about the figures at the helm, and what she calls “the grayness of the character of many revolutionary leaders.” This, along with an interest in the psychology of power — why people want it and how it changes them — informed Poe’s understanding of Selah’s character. Near the beginning of the movie, Selah sits in a chair in a field, which is a direct reference to a 1968 photograph of Newton sitting on a wicker-like throne wearing a beret and a black leather jacket. “Oftentimes when I think about Selah, I think about Huey Newton,” Poe said. “And I wonder if in a different environment, Selah would be leading a revolutionary party.”

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