10 Directors to Watch: Tayarisha Poe Shows Her Hand With ‘Selah and the Spades’

First-time helmer brings a photographer's eye and her own fresh perspective to Sundance-bound coming-of-age tale.

Tayarisha Poe 10 Directors to Watch
Courtesy of Tayarisha Poe

Ever since she can remember, Tayarisha Poe has been drawn to the screen’s most notorious bad guys. Such men as Tony Soprano, Walter White and Michael Corleone.

“We allow our own sense of what’s right and wrong to be melded and meshed to fit with these characters because most of us are so ready to have empathy for them,” says Poe, a Philadelphia native. “People who aren’t white, and especially people who aren’t white men, are not often afforded that same empathy.”

In 2012, after graduating from Swarthmore College, Poe took it upon herself to change that mindset by creating a black, female, teenage protagonist named Selah Summers who is charming, conniving and callous.

The result is the photographer-turned-director’s inaugural narrative film, “Selah and the Spades,” set to premiere in Sundance’s Next section. The movie, which began as a multimedia series of short films, photos and short stories called “The Overture,” follows Summers — the head of the most powerful underground faction at a prestigious boarding school. The character is both feared and loved.

“It’s ‘The Godfather’ meets ‘The Baby-Sitters Club,’ ” says Poe, who received extensive support for the project from the Sundance Institute. In addition to being named the Institute’s Knight Foundation Fellow in 2016, the director was selected for the January 2017 Sundance Screenwriters Lab and the June Sundance Directors Lab.

“Selah and the Spades” may center on adolescent characters, but don’t expect a John Hughes film.

“I love stories about teenagers that are not focused on romantic relationships,” Poe says. “We inundate teens with narratives about falling in love, but there’s a wealth of rich life that is part of the teenage experience that has nothing to do with that.”

While Poe won’t go into any detail about her future endeavors, she hopes to adapt a novel and launch another multimedia project.

“I’m looking forward to 2019 being even busier than this year was, which is hard to say because this was probably the busiest year of my life.”

Influences: Chris Marker’s “La Jetée,” director Rian Johnson, author David Mitchell
Agency: ICM
Management: Grandview
Legal: Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz