The psychology of power sits at the center of director Tayarisha Poe’s debut feature, “Selah and the Spades,” about the leader of one of five secret factions at an elite boarding school in Pennsylvania. The film, which generated buzz at Sundance last year, bows April 17 on Amazon Prime. 

Key to the movie’s look and tone was to invest that power in Selah Summers (Lovie Simone), head of Haldwell School’s most powerful faction, the Spades, which handles the clandestine buying and selling of drugs and alcohol among the student body. Though nearing graduation, she’s not considering her academic future but rather what will happen when she vacates her dominant social position once school comes to an end. She’s not into boys or pursuing a relationship either. She’s looking for an heir to her throne, yet believes friendships can compromise power. 

For cinematographer Jomo Fray (“No Future”), the way the camera framed Selah was key to accenting the character’s motivations. He describes the film’s visual design as “Savage formalism.” “It was ‘Savage’ in the way of Rihanna’s ‘Anti’ album,” he says of the hit track, “meaning cold, powerful, brutal and bold.” Fray captures Simone’s magnetic performance by using a Steadicam and often favoring unblinking close-ups. 

Poe appreciates the DP’s strategy. “Jomo is a collaborator who speaks of Rihanna’s oeuvre and the societal effects of brutalist architecture with the same gravity,” she says. 

The meaning of colors was also important in the movie. When he came on board the project, Fray sat down with Poe, production designer Valeria De Felice and costume designer Jami Villers to discuss the film’s look and feel. “We broke down what colors mean in this world,” he explains, noting that each faction had a specific palette. “I’d go off and do color tests,” he says, so that the team could assess what the camera was seeing and make sure there was no distortion in what was being shot. 

Color also played a part in the costumes of Selah and her potential heir, Paloma (Celeste O’Connor), to differentiate their positions. “We always tried to have [Selah] in purples and gold,” Fray says. “We wanted her to have a real sense of regalness about her. In many ways she is the king, queen, judge, jury and executioner at Haldwell.” On the other hand, Paloma is dressed in earth tones throughout the movie. “We wanted her character to feel grounded and connected to herself,” Fray says. The neutral color also separates Paloma from the faction-based world of the school.

As the film progresses, Selah finds she and Paloma have less in common than she thought. Paloma isn’t set in her ways, and Fray uses a handheld camera to reflect her openness. The DP notes that the handheld also “sneaks in” later when shooting Selah, as she begins to lose control over her position, her leadership abilities and her emotions. Contrast lighting also supports the master-student dynamic, with darker setups for Selah as she struggles with herself to relinquish power to Paloma. 

To Poe, Fray’s approach helped ground the film. “His work doesn’t seek to be the loudest part of the project,” says the director. “He isn’t a cinematographer who will do something simply because it looks good. Rather, everything that he does, any suggestions he makes, are always in service of the story, and truly, that’s the dream.”