Filmmaker Tayarisha Poe weaves Philly experiences through her work

About halfway through the first time I watched “Selah and the Spades,” my left eyebrow raised. A character had casually dropped the location of the boarding school where action is set — mentioning it was somewhere southeast of Philadelphia. Then a Pennsylvania license plate popped on screen, and a kid mentioned making a run into Fishtown.

Heyyy, this is a Philly movie, I realized. As soon as I finished watching, I reached out to see if director Tayarisha Poe could talk. She said yes — and also agreed to do a live Q&A. (More details below.)

Growing up on 48th and Baltimore had a profound impact on Poe, she told me.

The 30-year-old writer and director purposely wove her childhood experiences throughout her first feature film. “A lot of the stuff that I write is either based in that small fictional town right outside of Philly or based in West Philadelphia,” she said.

“Selah and the Spades” debuted at Sundance in January 2019, started streaming on Amazon Prime at the end of April and is currently enjoying a wicked press run, coronavirus be damned. The film offers a mystical angle on down-to-earth high school drama teeming with overachievement, drugs and cliques.

Locally, the movie debuted during the 2019 BlackStar FIlm Festival, an annual week-long gathering based in Philadelphia that’s been called “Black Sundance.”

“I know so many people who are a part of making BlackStar that it felt like that was the most important festival to me to play,” Poe said. “I was really clear with Amazon about that when they bought the film for distribution. I was like, ‘No matter what, we have to make sure that we can still bring it to BlackStar.’”

Poe transitioned to full time filmmaking in 2017 when she was named a Pew Fellow. Before that, the Swarthmore film grad worked part time academic jobs at her alma mater and Penn, did a bunch of freelance gigs around the city, and was a videographer at PhillCAM.

Around 6 p.m. Tuesday, May 5, Billy Penn will be hosting a sort of virtual “Selah and the Spades” watch party, followed by a 7:45 p.m. Instagram Live chat with Poe.

She’ll answer your questions about quirks in the movie, her creative process, her career as a writer and director, and those deep Philly roots.

The film is streaming on Amazon Prime, but if you register online at Eventbrite here, you won’t need a Prime subscription to tune in — we’ll email you a special link to watch, courtesy of Poe’s connections.

Get creative and make it a Zoom movie date with some friends. We may be socially distant, but we’ll all be watching “Selah and the Spades” together, so it’ll basically be like going to the Ritz Five, only with less sticky floors. Afterward, head to Billy Penn’s Instagram to watch our real-time director’s talkback and to comment with your own questions for Poe.

She’s holed up in Brooklyn right now, working on two upcoming projects but missing her hometown, she said, where most of her family still lives. So tune in to show her some of that Philly love.

In the meantime, scroll down for a quick Q&A with the rising filmmaker, who has every intent of taking the city with her.

YouTube video

This interview has been lightly edited for space and clarity.

How did growing up in Philly influence ‘Selah’?

Philly is always part of everything that I write. It’s sort of fun to be able to do something like make a hyper-specific joke about how Fishtown is now really gentrified.

There’s this quote that I really liked from this book by Walker Percy called “The Moviegoer.” It’s about this idea of a place being certified. Like when you see your hometown or your street in a movie or on a TV show, it feels as though it finally actually exists. I feel that way about wanting to show West Philly in particular on the screen.

Was the fictional PA town in the movie based on a real one?

Vaguely, yeah. My parents are both professors at Lincoln University. For a while when I was a teenager I lived out with them near Oxford, Pa., Kennett Square, West Grove, that whole area. So definitely that Southeastern Pennsylvania countryside, [with] Amish people riding buggies on the road — that sort of feeling.

I really also love that part of my upbringing and of my childhood. It’s like I feel this deep desire to just represent that experience. Although, there are a lot of racists out there. But, other than the racists, it is very lovely.

What was it like growing up with educators as parents?

I was homeschooled until fifth grade with a couple of my brothers. We were encouraged to have a love of reading and entertaining ourselves, so I just spent a lot of time in my youth reading stories quietly in a corner — and writing my own.

My parents always encouraged that, and always encouraged my brothers in it, just to basically do whatever we wanted. We really had a lot of freedom.

Did that help ‘Selah’ break away from the mold of a traditional feature film?

The way I think about all the kids in the story is that these are kids who have heard for most of their lives that they are the best person in the room. All of these kids have been told how special they are, and they’ve internalized that.

So, we’re seeing the best and the worst parts of internalizing that, which is that you really do think you can conquer the world. But the other thing is that you really want to conquer the world.

I don’t really see that with Black main characters, ever.

Me neither. It’s an important perspective to be able to see and that’s a huge part of why I wrote it. [‘Selah’] is unambiguously Black, yeah. It’s so rare to see that.

It almost feels like when I was younger, in a weird way, because I happened to have my childhood during the sort of golden age of Black TV. Now, I feel like a certain type of diversity is being encouraged and that really worries me. All Black women can’t be light skinned with super loose curly hair. That’s not true and I feel like that’s as damaging of the thing to do as to just not have any Black people in it. It’s still erasure.

I remember what it felt like when I was a kid to not see myself. I want to make sure that, you know, my niece always sees herself in things that I make. Or else I shouldn’t be making things.

Layla A. Jones (she/her) was a general assignment reporter for Billy Penn from 2019 to 2021. Her work has helped underserved community organizations, earned free repairs for property owners who sustained...