Film / TV
AFROPUNK Cinema Noir: Tayarisha Poe Shines Bright
By Ada Kalu
March 17, 2023
Tayarisha Poe’s second feature film, The Young Wife, debuted earlier this week at SXSW. With positive reviews, the cast boasts names like Kiersey Clemons, Leon Bridges, Aida Osman, Sheryl Lee Ralph and more. The Young Wife navigates themes of love through Clemons ‘following her over the course of her “non-wedding” day.’ As it stands, Poe’s sophomore film sees her team up again with Jomo Fray as cinematographer and Terence Nance (Random Acts of Flyness) whose music features in the first film. Over the past few years, she has worked on The Twilight Zone, Two Sentence Horror Stories and her debut feature, Selah and the Spades. In honor of TYW, I’m looking back at her first feature film and why she’s an exciting director to watch out for.
When I first encountered Selah Summers (Lovie Simone), it was the thick of the pandemic. I was enamored by the film’s boarding school setting – Haldwell, in Pennsylvania. I adored the illicit 5 factions as distinct divisions catering to student vices. I loved the Spades, and how they were the most important and I was down with Selah and her ability to command power among her peers and laugh off threats from other group leaders. She confidently asserts, ‘it’s just so funny to me that you really believe after all these years you could do what I do for even a second of your life.’
And she’s right. This authority, combined with her smarts showed the savagery of teens. The movie mixes tropes of the mobster movie and the high school film. Through this setting, Poe explores the intricacies of power. This is echoed by Selah who asks ‘the question isn’t who’s going to let me, it’s who’s going to stop me?’ Ultimately, this is the premise of the film, the undoing of Selah Summers.
Initially a web series, Tayarisha Poe’s choice to make this a feature gives her the pace to explore Selah, Haldwell and the function of the school’s factions. It means the world of Haldwell as we approach it is new to us but with a lived in feel to it. Over the past few years, talks of a series in the works have bubbled online. Fans hoped to see and learn more about Selah’s background. How did she become the leader of the Spades? Where did this silent ruthlessness come from? The series also seemed like a great opportunity to explore Selah’s loneliness and identity as a Black girl in high school.
There’s the intensity of her relationship with her mother that balances out with her relationship with Paloma (Celeste O’Connor). A struggle between wanting a friend, wanting a successor and wanting to hold onto control. As seen in her relationship with best friend and right hand Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome), Selah’s view of friendship is tied to her view of power and her place as leader. Her relationship with Paloma is unique, showing a tenderness at war with the need to be unfeeling and unbreaking as offered by conversations with her mother (Gina Torres).
Poe’s ability to craft a world so exciting and familiar yet distant and new felt like being initiated into a secret of secrets. Like Paloma, I wanted to know more and felt favored in Selah’s presence despite her shiftiness and calculated decisions. Selah deals in vices but does not partake, orders the violence but never herself gets her hands dirty. This decision to show stories about the ‘marginalia of black life, and more generally about the minutiae of being a human being’ carry the film through to its end. Selah is a complex character borne of ‘codes of silence, rats, ineffectual adults, control, pleats in skirts…friendships that leave you with gut punches, telling the truth, mind games, lying, power vacuums, and spades – the card game, the gang.’
Selah is not a good person but to simply call her bad is so reductive. Yes she sent her best friend to get beat up as penance for betrayal. Yes she drugged her protégé out of fear of being outdone. Yes she supposedly did this terrible thing to Teela that we never fully see or discuss but I kind of don’t care. At the end of the day, Selah Summer deserves grace. After all, she is only 17 and quite unsure of herself. Despite her firm grasp of what she doesn’t like and what scares her, she leaves little room for herself to figure out her sense of self. Her view of sex is ‘why not just do things that keep you from crying in bathrooms?’ While it is hinted that she is asexual, she is also very scared of partaking in interactions that require commitment and vulnerability as they challenge her power.
Poe is so great at creating characters that are seemingly indefensible yet peak our interests and curiosity at how we got here and who they really are. Selah is ‘a teenage girl who has a little bit more power than most teenage girls do.’ Poe marvels in this art form as a means of showing and telling us enough in the subtle glances. An example in the garden scene, a shared moment between Selah and Paloma set to Terence Nance’s Infinince or Infinity. The careful crafting of this moment allows for silent intimacy and connection at the start of their relationship. Here is excellence in things said and not said, in images and a private world that runs the way it does because it does. As a debut, this was truly an excellent moment to me and unlike anything I’d experienced before. With The Young Wife, I look forward to experiencing more of Poe’s talent and its themes of love and intimacy.
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