BET+ will premiere Call Her King on July 6.
The marketing for director Wes Miller’s new film, Call Her King, would certainly have you believe this to be a full-on “Die-Hard-In-A-Courtroom” action thriller with actress Naturi Naughton front and center and leading the charge. The first few minutes introduces our would-be heroine sparring in a Silat sesh with her Pendekar (Anthony Lingo) as a preamble to this, but it’s a lengthy wait to see the actress in any the film’s key action while the film advances forward.
We’ll dig more into this aspect of the film later, but more central to the film’s analysis are themes pertinent to the film’s exemplary invocation of systemic corruption in America’s criminal justice system. This is where we meet Naughton in the role of Jaeda King, a Judge forced to contend with a number of issues in both her personal life and career pursuits. Her reputation for being pro-prosecutorial, Jaeda’s work-centric focus has become a point of ire in her increasingly loveless marriage with Gerald (Tobias Truvillion), a struggling post-Covid former restauranteur with whom they shares daughter, Raya (Lawren Miller). Later that early morning, Jaeda’s courthouse arrival on the sentencing day of a convicted murder suspect named Sean (Jason Mitchell) reveals racist backroom whispers by once trusted white colleagues, as well as the salacious intentions of Duke (Garrett Hendricks), a skeevy prosecutor who also shares more than a certain history with the Judge.
It’s only until an hour passes and King commences the early hour court session for Sean’s sentencing to avoid a press circus, that the underhanding miscarriage of justice at work here is eventually revealed. Just as Sean’s death sentencing is handed, a small army of gunmen violently raid the courthouse and storm the courtroom in a carefully plotted and coordinated attack led by Gabriel (Lance Gross), the founder of a major cyber security firm and the brother of the newly-convicted Sean.
Instantly, King secures herself in her chambers along with Sean and his defense attorney, Jerry (Nicholas Turturro), and a cop named John Stryker (Johnny Messner), while they fortify and plan an escape, which may not be an easy enough solution. Intent on freeing Sean and exposing the truth, Gabriel seizes the judge’s bench and takes everyone hostage, initiating a trial of his own with deadly consequences. With the courthouse booby trapped and swarming with gunmen, it’s Stryker who takes point for most of the way, while King must mitigate an increasingly explosive situation with nearly no way out. That ultimately means re-evaluating the case in real time while cross-examining Sean, forcing her to confront her own ills in potentially playing a role in condemning a man who could very well be innocent.
This particular story element plays a bit jaggedly in the inaugural scene between Jaeda and Gabriel, delivering what feels like a discordant shift in the subject matter. There’s a scene later where Jaeda is reflecting on what looks like a continuation of their first discussion that coheses things a bit, but still doesn’t do much to adjust the tonal shift more smoothly. From this juncture, Jaeda’s development here gets to be an intriguing experiment as there are scenes worth weighing when aspiring to root for a protagonist who seems otherwise conflicted about her latest conviction.
Par for the course is the collective mood with everyone involved as Sean is purely written off as the guilty party, including Stryker, who I admit even had me guessing whether or not there was more to his character in the film than met the eye. This shroud of mystery continues rather providentially as more characters are introduced and the plot thickens.
Largely though, it’s Jaeda who gets a little hard to sympathize with during the upheaval. There’s a scene early on when Duke is in Jaeda’s chambers and tells her about the “secrets” they both know regarding the case which they can share with anyone. It’s kind of telling as the film progresses onward and we learn more about the characters, which makes rooting for Jaeda a challenge when she reflects on the injustices she witnessed with her peers as per her inspiration to become a judge and make a difference. It’s dicey for me, personally, and while I’m all for rooting for a hero who isn’t completely black or white, there’s something crooked about lending any inspirit to a protagonist with problematic traits that not only go unacknowledged, but frankly feel veiled in almost specious stoicism.
By then, one only other character apart from John and Sean that’s worth cheering, remarkably on is Gabriel. It’s a mindfuck, to be honest, as he’s happens to be a cold-blooded murdering bastard himself. Period. That said, it his actions alone that drive the story’s albeit real judicial focus forward, after putting Duke on the hotseat in front of a jury comprised of citizens and inmates. Moreover, his efforts to cast a light unto a system that can’t be trusted eventually lead to at least one other character also getting killed. That character is someone with whom he shares a history as well, and given his rather incendiary intro in the film, you’re more than welcome to draw your own conclusions here.
By the time most of Call Her King wraps, there’s been ample character development and plenty of action featuring Messner and the stunt cast to garner interest. The only chore here really is that it’s not until more than an hour passes when Naughton finally takes the wheel, with stuntwoman Wakisha Malone stepping in for the more perilous stunt and fight action, coordinated by Yadi Nieves Ceteno and Felix Betancourt. More analytical viewers will be keen to point out the tight cinematography, claustrophobic angles and lighting, and some of the quick edits, all intent on obscuring the use of a stunt double between most of Naughton action scenes. Auspiciously, none of it is too jagged for the human eye and if you’re willing to lend a curve or two, there’s plenty to enjoy in what Naughton contributes in part to her first action role.
The chips have all or mostly fallen by the end of Call Her King depending on your perception of its ending; What happens is a crucial package ends up in the wind and leaves quite a bit in the air for what may or may not lead to a potential sequel. As for the crux of what comes before it in Miller’s latest film, all BET+ subscribers are welcome to stream the film and judge for themselves. There are some bright spots to observe here, the biggest one being getting to see an African American woman in an action role with pertinent martial arts abilities, which is something contemporary action and martial arts cinema needs more of, particularly in an industry where remnants of yesteryear attitudes still threaten to overshadow any push for representation. Just don’t be led astray by the usual errs that still often tend to plague the genre.
Native New Yorker. Lover of all things pizza, chocolate, pets, and good friends. Karaoke hero. Left of center. Survivor. Fond supporter of cult, obscure and independent cinema - especially fond of Asian movies and global action cinema. Author of the bi-weekly Hit List. Founder and editor of Film Combat Syndicate. Still, very much, only human.