Share / Discuss

Commanding Attention

She’s finding her audience — and listening to them, too

“The most fascinating part of releasing a piece of narrative art into the world,” says filmmaker Tayarisha Poe ’12, “is that the meaning of it is no longer yours to decide, but the world’s.”

Poe, who studied film production and creative writing at Swarthmore, recognized that upon the April release of her directorial feature debut, Selah and the Spades. The story she set out to tell — of a boarding-school student who did whatever she wanted without worrying about the consequences — reached its audience fully realized. And then it became theirs to interpret.

“So many young people have been connecting with the film and delving into the meaning of the story in ways that I couldn’t have predicted,” says Poe, who delighted in the exchange.

“Why does Selah do XYZ?” she asks. “Who knows? Why do you think? Sometimes other people explain the film’s meaning better than I ever could.”

The film broke through the cultural clutter, earning an 89% on Rotten Tomatoes and an array of critical acclaim. Because of the global pandemic, it could be viewed only on Amazon Prime, not in theaters — but that didn’t dampen Poe’s thrill at its debut.

The response was “overwhelming,” she says. “I hadn’t expected that much focused attention on something that I’d grown used to being just a figment of my imagination. But that quickly turned to excitement.”

Her enthusiasm bubbled over at a program Amazon Studios held with the film department of Howard University. Poe sat in on the students’ final presentations, for which they pitched their versions of adapting Selah into a series.

“It was a dream come true,” says Poe, who cites the “impossibly cool” yet gritty visual style of Rihanna as an inspiration for her film.  

Then there was the Q&A session Poe had with Selah producer Lauren McBride ’10 for Swarthmore’s Film & Media Studies Department. Although the event was held virtually, it sparked flashbacks to being on campus, Poe says.

“Lots of rapid-fire questions I hadn’t been asked before, from the usual-suspect professors,” she says. “That’s what I loved about Swat: Everybody, everybody in my community there was so curious about everything. Eager to find something they don’t understand, so that they can begin the process of exploring something new.

“It’s what feeds my writing, that curiosity,” Poe adds. “I had such freedom, academically and creatively speaking, to explore new ways of telling stories.”