‘Kevin (Probably) Saves the World’ Star Explains How Show Avoids ‘Magical Negro’ Trope

“If Melissa McCarthy were Yvette … that would never be an issue about that,” Kimberly Hebert Gregory tells TheWrap

“Kevin (Probably) Saves the World” star Kimberly Hebert Gregory doesn’t mind if you approach her new ABC show with a raised eyebrow concerning whether the series falls into certain tropes based on racial stereotypes. But she is also certain that upon viewing, audiences will realize that relying on outmoded character devices is not an issue for the series.

The drama from co-creators Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas premieres tonight and stars Jason Ritter as Kevin, a down-on-his-luck guy who is visited by celestial being Yvette (Gregory) and given a chance to do good in the world.

During a panel at the Television Critics Association’s summer press tour, the show’s team was asked about the nature of Yvette assisting in Kevin’s journey and whether the show was at risk of employing the so-called “Magical Negro” trope. Gregory told TheWrap she appreciated that this question came up, but that she and the show’s writers have helped ensure that Yvette is a complicated presence with her own struggles and goals.

“Michele and Tara and I, we have had conversations, and they have real clear ideas of Yvette,” the actress explained. “As much as she is there to help Kevin, Kevin is really there to help her because it’s really her fish out of water story, to some degree, because she has no experience here. There is equitable time given to try to suss out, ‘What is an Yvette? Where did she come from, and what is she doing?'”

Gregory, who replaced Cristela Alonzo in the role after the series was picked up, said she imagines that the co-creators were surprised by the question, given how fully developed their show and characters are.

“If Melissa McCarthy were Yvette, and she did nothing but help Jason, that would never be an issue about that,” Gregory said. “So I do understand that when bodies of color occupy space, it shifts, and it makes us look at things from historical perspective that reminds us that race, racism [and] nationalism are all still in play.”

The “Vice Principals” star also discussed why Yvette isn’t called an angel, whether the show is primarily intended for religious audiences and how Trump affects its message.

How does the show refrain from falling into the “Magical Negro” trope? 

Kimberly Hebert Gregory: I loved that question [at TCA] because you have a black woman in the role of a celestial being who’s helping a white male lead try to save the world, [along with some reporters] not having seen the pilot or had a conversation with me. Michele and Tara and I, we have had conversations, and they have real clear ideas of Yvette. As much as she is there to help Kevin, Kevin is really there to help her because it’s really her fish-out-of-water story, to some degree, because she has no experience here. There is equitable time given to try to suss out, “What is an Yvette? Where did she come from, and what is she doing?”

I understand the concerns, and we well know the “Magical Negro.” Those are characters who are there specifically and solely for the support and advocation of a white lead character. That’s not what Michele and Tara have created.

I also hope that people have more trust and belief in the actors that they’re bringing to the table, that there can be some level of trust and understanding of the optics. I’m not unaware of the optics, Jason isn’t unaware of the optics, Michele and Tara aren’t unaware of the optics, nor the history. When that question is posed, I understand it, and I also go, “Gosh, I wish they knew more about who has a seat at the table, and we have seats at the table.” And therein lies the difference.

You’re at a moment now where I certainly feel like as an actor, as a woman, as a black person, as a black woman, that it’s important for me to make sure that I am articulating, not just in my craft but also to those who are crafting behind the scenes — what I would like to see and how we collaborate, and Michele and Tara and the writing staff have been so generous and collaborative and already ahead of that. Who wants to watch that show? We watched that show 20 or 30 years ago. There’s really no interest from a creative perspective in telling that story, but I do understand why the question is posed because it comes from a historical reality.

Was this a subject that the showrunners were prepared to address, or do you think they were surprised because they knew their characters are complex, so they weren’t worried?

I do think it was, “Huh.” They are so keenly aware of the optics, and they are amazing showrunners, and they are amazing human beings. I do think that was, “Oh, we are way past that. We’re writing seven episodes past that.” [Or,] “Oh, that’s what you might see — OK, right. Oh, yeah — that could be how people might see, but we are beyond that.” That never was the intention. But I came in [at the start], and I had a conversation, and I was like, “I just want to make sure …” And everybody was like, “Of course.” And we talked about storyline, we talked about all of those things.

If Melissa McCarthy were Yvette, and she did nothing but help Jason, that would never be an issue about that. So I do understand that when bodies of color occupy space, it shifts, and it makes us look at things from historical perspective that reminds us that race racism [and nationalism are all still in play.

Why does the show clarify in the pilot that your character isn’t an angel?

I think people have ideas when certain words are used. I believe that we lock ourselves into a presupposed identity for our character if we call her an angel. Viewers will have an idea of how she is supposed to behave because we all culturally understand what an angel is supposed to be — she is supposed to be good, kind, all of those things. And I think Michele and Tara want to have the flexibility to make Yvette as fully realized as possible. Does she always have to be nice? No, probably not. She’s not always the best — she’s celestial, but she’s not angelic.

Will the show be a tougher sell for secular viewers?

This is not a religious show. This is a show about humans seeking, and I think it is for secular as well as the non-secular. Everybody on one level is seeking to be better, and that really is what this show is about. I love watching Jason Ritter, as the character, struggle with being a good human being, because that’s really what this is.

The show was developed before Trump’s win, but does it feel informed by our current world? As scripts continue to get written, do you expect them to reflect what it means to be living in Trump’s America? 

Michele and Tara had an idea about this well before our national election, and they are holding true to the essence of the show. It doesn’t even have a political leaning. But timing is everything, and I think this is prescient right now. Most people want good, and we all want to be in a space where we see the good in others. I hope people will walk away with that message in this time.

“Kevin (Probably) Saves the World” airs Tuesdays at 10/9c on ABC.