Lance Gross in Call Her King (Photo credit: BET+)
BET+’s upcoming film, Call Her King, starts as a courtroom drama, but quickly becomes a thriller with a message regarding the biased legal system. Lance Gross, who stars in the film opposite Naturi Naughton and Jason Mitchell, is at the crux of the film’s message about legal racism.
I was able to speak to Gross earlier this month about his character Gabriel, aka “Black Caesar,” and his mission to save his incarcerated brother Sean (Jason Mitchell) from a death sentence delivered by Judge Jaeda King (Naughton). He said getting into character involved asking himself what he would do if he had to save his family member from a lifetime of prison.
“I feel like I started on the simpler side, giving myself the what if, if my brother was actually in danger of losing his life, what are the lengths that I would go to to save his life, you know? And then you have to kind of like translate that into like your idea of that,” he said. “Because of course I would never hijack a courthouse or anything like that, but you kind of have to put that in terms of the character, you know, and that’s how you get the humanity of the character.”
“I knew I had to be not Lance ’cause I just don’t handle things the way Gabe handles things. So it took a lot,” he continued. “But, you know, I think I got there and Wes Miller, the director, we talked out our scenes a lot. He was just available for me to bounce things off to see what would work, what wouldn’t work, and, you know, that’s how we created our movie magic.”
A key theme regarding Black Caesar is figuring out if he is a villain or anti-hero. As you watch the film, you’ll find that many of his viewpoints track as far as facts about the justice system go. But his actions are far beyond the pale. Gross said that despite Black Caesar’s actions, he wouldn’t call him a villain.
“I wouldn’t villainize him, just because, you know, as actors [and] the roles that we play, we have to see the humanity in it,” he said. “For all of his life, the justice system has treated him unfairly, like a lot of African-Americans. In a way, his thoughts are justified, you know? I wouldn’t say the killing is, but he’s just strictly trying to save his brother and all he wants is the justice system to do right by him, his brother and his family. So yeah, I wouldn’t call him a villain at all.”
The real experiences that echo in Black Caesar’s anger are those that many Black people, men especially, have faced when dealing with the police. As I told Gross in the interview, my own father and uncle have been profiled by the police in their youth. Gross also talked about what it has been like for him as a Black man to contend with racism from police.
“It’s all about opening the audience’s eyes to things that they may or may not be thinking of. And, you know, it’s really a conversation piece,” Gross said about the movie. “You know you have this entertaining movie with action and stars that you love or you know, but at the end of the day, the movie is…tackling some issues that we’ve been having with the legal system. Especially being a African-American man, just being pulled over, is [something] I have way more to think about than my manager, who is a Jewish man. He doesn’t fear for his life when he gets pulled over.”
“I do I feel like the movie is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do. It’s supposed to spark conversation, you know?” he continued. “This situation with the legal system is very real, you know? And I think Wes really put some thought into that when he did this movie.”
Gross called the state of police brutality and discrimination in America “a trip.”
“I’ve even had run-ins with police officers that, I feel it…didn’t go the way it should have,” he said. “…I think even with Gabriel, the mistreatment is one of the reasons why he…learned everything that he could about the legal system and laws and he applied it when it came time to help his brother out. It’s a huge conversation to have. I mean, it’s unfortunate where [the situation with the police and Black people] is because…even my best friend is a police officer. He got into law enforcement because of the mistreatment. But now also with that, he’s targeted because there are so many people that don’t trust police officers. So it’s a double-edged sword.”
Even though the film touches on a tough topic, the filming process itself saw Gross link up with his real-life friends, Naughton and Mitchell. Gross said being on set with them was “awesome.”
“Naturi’s been a friend of mine for years, and we finally got the chance to work together on this. It was trippy, you know, because you never know in what capacity you’re gonna work with another actor on, and, you know, I didn’t know we were gonna be pitted against each other, but that’s just how it happened,” he said, adding it was “fun” working with her.
“It’s always a plus when you are working with someone that you actually know and you don’t have to find the chemistry because it’s already there. But it was very fun working with her on this,” he said. “And, you know, actually she was pregnant during the filming of this, and I didn’t know that, but now it all makes sense. She’s a total professional. She’s a great talent and I would love to work with her again. She’s a great friend, so it was good.”
Naughton’s pregnancy nearly became an issue during a fighting scene. Looking back on it, Gross said it was a clear indication she was pregnant.
“There was one scene, one of the fighting scenes where I had to grab her and kind of pull her over the seat in the courtroom. And I had grabbed on one take. I had grabbed her stomach and after the take, she was like, ‘Could you not grab my stomach?’ And I had no idea she was pregnant,” he said. “I just thought she was, you know, I don’t know, extra sensitive or whatever. But now looking back, it all makes sense. Like, that was a dead giveaway. She’s pregnant, that’s why. She’s a trooper.
Gross said he’s also known Mitchell for years, adding, “I’ve always respected him as an actor. So there was a lot that we didn’t have to find because there was already roots there.”
“We spent a lot of time just on the phone or talking [where] we were staying, we actually shot the film in Camden, New Jersey and we were staying in the same hotel, so we would link up a lot just to kind of get a refresher,” he continued. “We hadn’t seen each other in some years. So we kind of just fell into it, you know? He’s a good dude. I think that chemistry came easy for me and Jason as well.”
With Call Her King as another addition to the BET+ slate, Gross said it’s great to have a chance to work with the streaming service that caters specifically to Black audiences.
“It’s an honor. I’ve worked a lot of jobs for BET and you know, of course being a Black man, BET has been in my life since I’ve been around, you know?” he said. “It’s great. I mean, I just love that there’s a platform for us, by us…I applaud anything Black, so yeah, if it’s Black, I’m for it.”
Gross said he hopes that the audience comes away with more awareness about the issues facing Black people when it comes to the police and the legal system.
“I just always want the audience to first off, be entertained [and] to have a little bit of escapism. There’s so much going on in the world that we just need to be entertained sometimes. So, this is a great action film by a great action director with a very talented cast,” he said. “And I think the chemistry is there, but also like I said before, this is a conversation starter. You know, there are problems in the justice system. There are holes in the justice system, and I just hope the audience takes away the, the spark of conversation.”
Call Her King comes to BET+ July 6.