Tayarisha Poe’s first feature film — that she wrote and directed—“Selah and The Spades” will debut on Amazon Prime, April 17th and that’s a very big deal.

Why? Haven’t you heard? It’s a Herculean task for a young, African-American woman to get an opportunity to live her bliss. And Poe’s bliss is being a filmmaker, a writer-director and one that can make a living doing just that.

It’s 2020, and the delightful, upbeat and funny Poe began the process when she was 21. She’s just thirty now a baby really with so much ahead of her and that’s exciting for her and us. Why? Well, because Tayarisha Poe is talented period, end of sentence. And she’s funny. Wait. I mentioned that and her sense of humor (dark) and her strong sense of character is evident in “Selah and The Spades”.

Here’s the story. In the closed world of an elite Pennsylvania boarding school, Haldwell, the student body is run by five factions. Seventeen-year-old Selah Summers (Lovie Simone) runs the most dominant group, the Spades, with unshakable poise, as they cater to the most classic of vices and supply students with coveted, illegal alcohol and pills. Tensions between the factions escalate, and when Selah’s best friend/right hand Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome) becomes distracted by a new love, Selah takes on a protégée, enamored sophomore Paloma (Celeste O’Connor), to whom she imparts her wisdom on ruling the school. But with graduation looming and Paloma proving an impressively quick study, Selah’s fears turn sinister as she grapples with losing the control by which she defines herself.

My new best friend aka Tayarisha Poe considers herself essentially a storyteller. We both grew up in Philadelphia, a place I hate (with my whole soul) and a place she loves with her whole soul. To be specific she’s a West Philly girl and takes all of the lessons she learned there “we get things done” with her on her journey. Her tenacity works. Poe was chosen as one of the “25 new faces of the independent film” by Filmmaker magazine in 2015, and in 2016 she received the Sundance Institute’s Knight Foundation Fellowship. In 2017 she was selected for the January Sundance Screenwriters Lab and the June Sundance Directors Lab. She is a 2017 Pew Fellow.

It was her experience at the Sundance writer and then the director lab that helped Poe put everything together. “They teach you the value of failing,” shared Poe when remembering the experience in shaping “Selah and The Spades,” “You have to give yourself the room grow. That’s an important lesson that I learned.”

Here is what writer/director Tayarisha Poe wants you to know about her first film “Selah and the Spades” that will debut on Amazon Prime, April 17, 2020.

Los Angeles Sentinel:I am so proud of you, my new best friend. First, how did this project originate?

TAYARISHA POE: I made an overture to “Selah and the Spades,” called “Overture,” in 2014, knowing I eventually wanted to make a feature. But I didn’t know how to write a feature script, and I didn’t know what it would be about, so I wrote short stories about the characters and their world — one every day for the month of November 2014. At the end of the month, I had all these stories. Since I knew how to write and take photos, I turned the stories into separate multimedia works. It’s not the most conventional approach to making a movie but it worked for the story because I wound up spending so much time world-building and thinking about the lives of these kids, which in the end made the feature itself so much more complex and rich.

LAS: What was the inspiration for the story?

TP: After graduating from college in 2012 and starting a real job, I kept wanting to write characters that did whatever they wanted, who kept moving forward in life without overthinking things, or even thinking about them at all.

LAS: At what point did you decide to make a gangster movie set in high school?

TP: From the project’s inception; the first Selah story I wrote was about Selah watching from afar as Maxxie beats up this kid who owes them money. It was about this girl who doesn’t get her hands dirty — she sends other people to do her dirty work. That’s the kind of story I’ve always been drawn to.

LAS: Who is Selah and how has she evolved over the years?

TP: She’s a 17-year-old girl who’s already well aware that her actions are constantly under review by others, but I’m still asking myself where that comes from. She’s been around for a long time, but she’s always been the character she is. She’s an amalgamation of the strong women I’m friends with, and sometimes see myself as — but it’s less about who those women are than it is about how others perceive them. Selah was born out of this frustration of me knowing that if we’re too headstrong or aggressive, I might be stereotyped as an aggressive black woman, so I spent a lot of time being chill and even-tempered. But it’s exhausting to constantly be thinking about how other people are seeing you, so Selah was born of my frustration with that, combined with the notion of examining what life would be like if you didn’t have to lean into the image of what you should be, or how you should act, or what you should be doing with your life, or your body, or your energy. Selah came out of those feelings, and she’s evolved over the years into something deeper and more complex.

LAS: This is a movie about power. What did you want to explore about power through this movie, or these characters?

TP: Power is an addictive thing, and I’m interested in the things people do to hold onto power, especially if you’re a person who lacks power, like a woman for example. What will you do to hold onto power once you have it? I’m interested in exploring that, because who doesn’t want power? Who doesn’t want to be able to do whatever they want and nobody can tell them otherwise — to me, that’s a thrilling thing.

LAS: What makes Selah powerful?

TP: People who are good at holding onto power tend to be those who are constantly competing against themselves, and I see that quality in Selah. That sort of constant competition is powerful unto itself — it’s something I feel like I’m examining every day of my life, in everything I write.

LAS: Describe the dynamic between Selah and Paloma.

TP: I wrote Selah and Paloma because I wanted to explore the relationships teenage girls have with one another, which are often more all-consuming than romantic relationships. They can be stronger and more important than the relationships they have with teenage boys, who don’t have a lot of substance at that age. I often feel like we don’t have a language to talk about the depth of our relationships with our closest friends — it still feels like we put the importance of close friendships on the backburner to romantic relationships. When I wrote these characters, it was so obvious to me that this was a love story between two people, even though it’s not about sex and romance. These are two people who are so passionate about each other they almost destroy themselves, and each other.

LAS: All high schools are a hotbed of sexual expression but in your movie, it’s also about organized criminal business.  Please describe The Haldwell School in your own words.

TP: This is a heightened, fictional portrayal of what boarding school is. I started attending one beginning in tenth grade, and Haldwell isn’t far off from my life there. You’re living in a hermetic environment removed from your parents and family, and you get to make your own rules, you have your own little society.

LAS: What was your inspiration for the five factions at Haldwell?

TP: They come from all the mafia and gangster movies I’ve ever seen, there’s always someone who’s betting on something, and who’s responsible for throwing parties, or for getting drugs. And there’s always a group like the prefects because somebody has to be responsible for making sure we get away with all this stuff. Imagine a bunch of kids who grew up watching The Godfather getting to a place where they have all this freedom; the first thing they’re going to do is create their own system of order within that free world.

LAS: Why did you want to cast Lovie Simone as Selah?

TP: She first auditioned for Paloma. If she played Selah, I worried that she looked so young that we would have to cast everyone else around her to look similar. But thankfully she was cast as Selah, it’s the greatest thing that could have happened to this story. You look at her face in any scene and you see her go through all these emotions in a matter of seconds, you see them written across her face, and then you see her cover them up under this perfect smile. She brought this very real teenage girl experience to the invaluable character — she’s brilliant.

LAS: It’s also an effective ensemble. How did you manage to achieve group chemistry?

TP: Ironically, I took the actors aside and told them what kind of movie they were in — every single character in this movie is living in their own different kind of movie. Paloma is living in a romantic comedy, Selah is in “The Godfather, and Maxxie is in a Jane Austen movie like Pride and Prejudice. I also gave everyone complex backstories, they all had reading assignments, short stories that inspired their characters. It also helped that we had the world of Haldwell containing them, this school identity everyone could latch onto and dive deep into. The actors would debate what their characters and factions might do in these hypothetical situations they came up with during downtime — it was like they were writing fan fiction as the story was happening.

LAS: Describe the dynamic between Selah and her mother.

TP: Selah is someone who wants to hold onto the power she has at school, but she doesn’t have that power when she’s at home with her mother.

LAS: What makes teenagers fascinating to you as subjects?

TP: I’m attracted to stories that treat teenagers and the emotional stuff they’re going through seriously, giving them the weight that those things deserve. A lot of the stuff they’re experiencing, like falling in love or hating somebody, or just the dramatic ups and downs of daily life is a first for them. When a teenager falls in love and then out of love, they feel like they’re going to die, they genuinely don’t know if they will survive this experience, because it’s never happened before. I’m fascinated by the purity of emotion that exists in teenagers.

LAS: What are you trying to say about humanity with this movie?

TP: I should qualify that in no way do I think that Selah is good or bad — and this applies to the other characters, I view them all as neutral and living in a grey area, which is why I love them because I believe in living in grey areas. But my biggest goal with the film springs out of that phrase sympathy for the devil — but for me, it’s empathy for the devil. I want audiences to have empathy for people who are doing things in life they may disagree with.

LAS: Any other things you would like your audience to take away from this movie.

TP: This one is specifically for black girls or people of color but I hope audiences will see people who look like them doing what they want to do — or being able to do whatever they want to do, which is important to me, in addition to having empathy for people who are doing what they want to do. It’s invigorating to see that on the screen, even if it’s not something you would personally do. Hopefully, it will inspire others to do what they want to do in life.

LAS: What’s next for you? I hope that you are writing a comedy? Or a horror? Or a horror-comedy? Spill the beans, Tayarisha Poe.

TP: (laughing) I can’t but I am writing.

“Selah and The Spades” on Amazon Prime, April 17th. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.  The article was originally published in the L.A. Watts Times Newspaper print and online edition for the week of 4-9-20.