When sinking into the twisty, backstabbing world of “Selah and the Spades,” a viewer might wonder what kind of experiences director and screenwriter Tayarisha Poe ’08 had in high school. They’re more upbeat than you’d think. “I had a weirdly fun time in high school,” said Poe. “But I also think that I happened to go to a fun school.”
“Selah and the Spades” tells the story of Selah, an intelligent and ambitious senior at the prestigious and fictional Haldwell Academy and the leader of the Spades, one of five factions that run the school’s dark underbelly. Selah finds a potential successor to her throne in underclassman Paloma, but power struggles and paranoia – from without and within – threaten their budding friendship. “In part, it’s about this misconception of what boarding school is like,” Poe said. “As in, how it feels to be at school and have all this power, and then go home and be a kid again.”
As a student at Peddie, Poe immersed herself in the arts. “I did everything,” Poe reminisced. She acted, she was on set crew, she took creative writing classes, she explored the visual arts through the medium of film and photography and she practically lived in the Swig Arts Center.
“Peddie’s the whole reason I got into film and photography. The teachers are very nurturing. I never felt dismissed for wanting to do odd projects and explore weird ideas. I always felt so encouraged,” she said.
“Selah” began as a series of short stories that Poe wrote in 2013 and, with the support of the Leeway Foundation, evolved into a multimedia project called “Selah and the Spades: Overture” (or, as Poe calls it, Selah 1.0). The finished film premiered at Sundance in January of 2019 and debuted on Amazon Prime in April. “Selah” is a New York Times Critic’s Pick and holds an 89% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. NPR said that Poe’s film, “represents the voice of a fresh new generation of black filmmakers.”
Poe has established herself to the world as a prominent young storyteller, and she’s only getting started. She’s currently working to develop a series for Amazon Studios, based in the world she created for “Selah and the Spades.” She’s also writing a new film that she will direct, the details of which she isn’t able to reveal yet.