*Kimberly Hébert Gregory plays Dr. Belinda Brown on the new HBO comedy “Vice Principals,” and there has been much criticism about a black women being cast to be the subject of machismo and misogyny on the series, served by stars Danny McBride (“East Bound and Down”) and Walton Goggins (“Hateful Eight”). The two play frustrated and entitled administrators jockeying for power.
The series was credited by McBride and Jody Hill, and it burst out of the gate this spring — winning the Audience Award South by Southwest. Goggins plays Lee Russell, a nemesis and uneasy ally to Danny’s Neal Gamby. The brilliant Kimberly plays the woman who possesses the power these two covet.
During the “Vice Principals” session at the Television Critics Association in Beverly Hills on Saturday, the cast and creators were asked how they keep it funny when you’ve got two white guys ganging up on an African-American woman.
“You know, I think it would be underestimating the show to assume that we’re just going for laughs with this. I mean, I think we’re well aware of what the optics of that look like, and that’s part of the story. These guys make a very bad choice, and it haunts them for the rest of the series,” said Danny.
Walton chimed in with: “I actually don’t think that’s really what the show is about. I think you have to wait for Episode 9, for a line from Lee Russell — in order to really kind of understand what these guys are saying. And I see that criticism and I think, like, wow, okay that’s — you’re just looking at something first glance. That’s like a two-dimensional review of this show. It’s really about so much more. And if it was just about that, I would think that-that would be cause for praise, not criticism,” he explained.
He continued: “These authors and writers are actually reflecting what’s going on in this culture. But it’s like I said, it’s not just about that. It’s a condemnation, really, about our society and kind of how that works and how people are rewarded for it. The most well-adjusted person in this cast is played by Kimberly, and she’s the one with the doctorate. So the two people who don’t have the right to sit in that principal’s chair are motivated to take it over through fear and intimidation,” he said.
Kimberly added that the criticism about her character is not only about race, but also about gender. And she noted how “We often have these conversations about Oscar being so white, things being so white. This is actually what casting equality looks like. And there’s an inherent question about her ability to be strong enough to stand with these people.”
“I just feel really strongly that we have to look at what it is. It’s about power. And it’s not about race. And it’s not necessarily about gender. I think if Melissa McCarthy played the role, I think they would do the same thing,” Kimberly explained. “So I think we have to be real clear and not be too reductive after the first two episodes of watching what’s happening because a black body, a black female body, is in the space with these two white males that we kind of reduce it to something that is not necessarily in that script. Because as a woman of color and as an actor, that’s not the choice that I would make if it was about that.”
She continued: “I think we have to be open. I want to be in a space where I can fight two white men. And I want us as an industry — I want us as people who are auditors of the work to get past and be open and really reach for that idea of equality, because the question almost keeps me from working most of the time if you understand what I’m saying.”
Danny said the show is about “Two assholes who don’t have it figured out. So the fact that you’d be appalled by something they do, well, we are too. I mean, that’s what the story is about.”
“And that’s also part of why we set this up the way we did, is that it’s not a show where the formula is just one thing and it stays that one thing through all 18 episodes,” McBride said during the panel Q&A.
He added, “It’s a show about growth. And so you definitely meet these guys at the beginning when their view on things is about as out there as it can be. And the show is really about these guys sort of navigating this world that they’re in and these disappointments they face and having to kind of look into themselves instead of, like, directing this anger at someone else.”
Considering the piece takes place inside a high school, EUR/Electronic Urban Report asked Danny whether or not he turned to actual high school students to help co-sign that the dialogue written for actors playing high school students was authentic and reflective of the times.
“We basically treat the students like cattle in the show,” he told us. “They just happen to be there. But I actually did go around to a few different high schools around the country and actually interviewed different assistant principals. I didn’t tell them what it was in reference for, but just trying to get a beat on what the mentality is of somebody who is in that position and what the outlook is. And talking to different vice principals, there’s — you know, it’s just interesting. There’s different ways to handle discipline.
There’s a way where you try to, you know, talk a student into understanding why they’ve done this; and then there’s a way to just, sort of, rule with an iron fist. But, in doing that, it helped us, sort of, figure out who these two vice principals are, which method each of these guys would use and how using a method like that would affect the rest of your life. That kind of broke down into Neal Gamby being this guy who thinks things should get changed by having an iron fist, and that sort of mentality has separated him from everyone else in this life,” said Danny.
This raucous and dark comedy airs Sundays on HBO at 10:30.