Revisiting The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air: A flawed yet vital masterpiece for these airbrushed times

In a time when the battle for Black rights has regained its momentum and found its way back into the headlines, does The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air stand up to scrutiny?

Karan Pradhan August 04, 2020 09:56:26 IST
Revisiting The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air: A flawed yet vital masterpiece for these airbrushed times

What makes a classic? How does a much-talked-about film or TV show of its time go on to attain cult status? In our new column, Rewind to Unwind, we break down classics to see how they stand in 2020, and how they have aged (if at all).

Why The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air?

Well, why not?

From its opening sequence, complete with that unforgettable song — one that need not be hyperlinked here, because if you've ever seen the show, it's unlikely you'll ever forget it — and its near-unending list of celebrity cameos, past all the cracks, crevasses and holes in the fourth wall, all the way to the variety of social issues highlighted (intentionally or otherwise), the show is a veritable triumph in daytime television history. Originally aired on NBC between 1990 and 1996, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is the tale of how a fairly street-smart (and equally book-stupid) man moves from West Philadelphia to Bel-Air, California to live with his uncle and aunt, Philip and Vivian Banks while they seek to give him a better life.

Along the way, he learns lessons about family, values, friendship, life and so on — all while delivering one solid PSA after another. But while such themes as drugs, gun control, class, fatherhood and peer pressure were explored and, (often) resolved and tied up neatly with a bow by the time a 24-minute-long episode came to a close, the sitcom's (and it certainly lived up to the 'com' part of that abbreviation) most powerful discourse surrounded race and racism. That the series aired at a time when the battle for Black rights was the topic of widespread and heated discussion — particularly in light of the Rodney King beating and the subsequent Los Angeles riots — gave its message that much more gravitas and power.

Now, 28 years since an unarmed Black man was mercilessly thrashed by five White police officers, we find ourselves in the post-George Floyd era — where police brutality, excess and apathy claimed the life of an unarmed Black man — where the battle for Black rights has regained its momentum and found its way back into the headlines. Let's find out if The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air stands up to scrutiny in 2020.

***

Over the past five years, Uncle Phil (the late James Avery), Aunt Vivian (Janet Hubert/Daphne Maxwell Reid), Geoffrey Butler (Joseph Marcell), Will Smith (Will Smith, curiously enough) and the rest of the gang have been the topic of some discussion following a couple of stray soundbites about a possible reboot (with Smith playing the role of the Banks family patriarch), a spin-off and the fan-made film trailer. It was last year that cinematographer Morgan Cooper unveiled a dark and dramatic Bel-Air in his four-or-so-minute long trailer — one that earned fulsome praise from Smith, who seemed to suggest that there might be something to this new avatar.

Thirty years ago, however, being part of a television show was probably not part of the then-just-a-rapper's (as compared to the rapper/actor/producer we know now) plans, but a tax debt of nearly $3 million to the Internal Revenue Service forced him to make his first serious foray into acting. The show, like so many films in the three decades to follow, was decidedly a Will Smith vehicle. Despite the interesting premise, a mix of experience (Avery, Hubert, Butler and Alfonso Ribeiro as Carlton Banks) and rawness (Tatyana M Ali, Karyn Parsons and the star of the show himself), and the racial tensions-marked era in which it was made, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air had no right to be as successful as it eventually was. After all, it was simply a way for a young rapper to pay off his pending taxes. Right?

Not quite, because it soon became clear that Smith's arrival at the Banks residence — as captured in that aforementioned opening sequence — would turn out to be as epochal, as era-defining and as much of a cultural hurricane as a certain Fräulein Maria's arrival at the joyless mansion belonging to the Family von Trapp.

An amalgam of snappy writing, a good balance of high-quality acting and the sort of scenery-chewing that forms the staple of sitcoms, sharp comedic timing, relatable situations and a solid grounding in family values and social justice saw Smith make the journey from unscrupulous and incorrigible rebel without a cause to a somewhat more mature and responsible adult over the course of six seasons.

But for all the positives — of which there are a sizeable number — and factors that make the show as relevant and compelling as ever in the present day, it did contain its fair share of bum notes — that seemed a bit off back in the 1990s, but are positively jarring today — and themes that have really not aged well.

Still fresh

While the underlying theme that taking help to improve your life doesn't make one soft or 'bougie', or in fact damage one's street cred was certainly notable and unique in the early 1990s, the series' handling of race and racial prejudice is perhaps its most striking aspect.

The episodes Mistaken Identity (from which the clip above was taken), Those Were the Days, Blood Is Thicker Than Mud and Guess Who's Coming to Marry? together form the quadfecta that defines the showrunners' approach to tackling racism. These episodes shone light on three distinct versions of prejudice: White-on-Black (where Will and Carlton are arrested for driving a Mercedes-Benz "too slow" through a fancy neighbourhood), Black-on-Black (where Carlton is discriminated against by a college fraternity leader for 'not being Black enough') and Black-on-White (where Will's family opposes his aunt's decision to marry a White man — played by a suitably awkward Diedrich Bader). And each of those episodes came to a close with lessons learned and all concerned parties wiser and better for the experience.

And while all of them contained fourth among the list mentioned above — Those Were the Days — is probably the most powerful in terms of its message. To summarise, Phil and Vivian are paid a visit by their friend from college, an activist on the run from the law. While her arrival inspires a streak of activism in Will, it devolves into the sort of clichéd variety that is comparable to the social media activism of the present day. It is towards the end of the episode that Will learns that trying to "Fight the system!" without properly understanding said system only serves to undermine the struggle — something to which today's hashtag warriors would do well to pay heed.

Beyond this quartet of episodes, there are moments littered all over the six seasons of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air where an effort is made to redefine what it means to be Black in the 1990s. This is evident from as early as the pilot episode, where Will accuses his uncle of having grown 'soft' and forgetting who he is and where he comes from.

"I grew up on the streets just like you. I encountered bigotry you could not imagine. Now you have a nice poster of Malcolm X on your wall. I heard the brother speak. I read every word he wrote. Believe me, I know where I come from!" Phil shoots back.

When it comes to his own commitment to the struggle for Black rights in Those Were the Days, Phil (a judge at the time) tells his activist friend, "I have a family, and I choose not to fight in the streets. I have an office to fight from and I have fought and won cases for fair housing, affirmative action, health care, and I am not ashamed to write a big fat cheque for something I believe in and that doesn't make me any less committed than you, so don't you dare look down your damn nose at me!"

Further, in order to understand The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, it is important to understand the idea of being Black espoused by The Cosby Show (that aired from 1984 to 1992)  As this article argues, "[The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air] attempts to reconcile what The Cosby Show failed to do, when it portrayed Blackness as a monolithic upper-class identity. Like Cosby, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air wants to interrogate Blackness." And if the character of Carlton is a throwback to the Bill Cosby idea of Black, Will is most certainly the other Black — the "more authentic" inner-city version. As the article adds, "Through Will's character, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air wants to bring to light conversations about class and Blackness, and more specifically about how the class difference impacts how one acts out their Blackness."

Powered largely by Avery's superlative acting chops, energised by a script that almost effortlessly blends moments of pathos with an irrepressibly irreverent script full of brutal references (from the Menendez brothers to Supreme Court judge Clarence Thomas and from Madonna's conical bra to Micheal Jackson, none were spared) and a host of cameos (by actors, musicians, sportspersons, politicians, supermodels, celebrities and one nowhere-near-as-orange-as-today real estate tycoon), the show handled a variety of topics — often viewed through the lens of Blackness — with varying levels of finesse. Some, like peer pressure, Will's search for a father figure and growing up were handled rather better than others.

Past its use-by date

"Say baby, with all that butt, you might be needing a hatchback!"

Now this is the part of the piece in which we enter the weird zone, the rather dodgy zone and the downright offensive and regressive zone. Make what you will of this supposed sales pitch for a car that Will considered not only appropriate but hilarious (You'd Better Shop Around), but when you make one group of humans — in this case a community — virtually the sole focus of a show's narrative, there's a tendency to demonise, trivialise and marginalise other sections of humanity and often, just forget about them entirely.

As noted above, the show was made at a time of bubbling racial tensions in Los Angeles, less than 20 miles from Bel-Air. And while it's certainly true that relations between Whites and Blacks were experiencing a major low, there was a third racial group that was also experiencing strife in the city: The Korean-American community, particularly after African-American 15-year-old Latasha Harlins had been shot dead by convenience store owner Soon Ja Du. It is therefore a little strange in retrospect to see the near-complete absence of Korean-Americans for starters, but also the non-representation of almost every other non-White, non-Black racial community from the show. Even the show's ridiculously ornate galaxy of cameos (that this is the third time I'm mentioning it should underline just how many cameos there were) featured predominantly Black personalities and around 10 White ones.

Moving on, the next group — or more accurately, set of groups — to get the short shrift was the LGBT community. Bear in mind that this was in the early 1990s and Q, I and A were over a decade away from being added to the abbreviation. In the three segments in the show (that I recall to the best of my ability) that homosexuality is referenced in some way or another, it's never in a positive sense. The first that comes to mind takes place in the episode Will Gets a Job, in which the stereotype of piercing a particular ear if you are gay is further perpetuated (with parrots on shoulders substituting for earrings in ears). In the first half of the two-part series finale and tangled in a mess of his own making, Will is on the hunt for an apartment and visits a potential landlord identified, Peter Clark. Our protagonist finds the apartment to be perfect and affordable. And when he asks Peter when he plans to move out so the Fresh Prince can move in, the former crosses his legs and says quite lasciviously, "I'm not moving out" effect. Will looks into the camera. Fearfully.

Finally, and possibly the most tone-deaf of all, was the reference to homosexuality and incest all contained in one clumsy pickup line in the episode Ain't No Business Like Show Business. "Hey girl, you look so good, I'd marry your brother just to get in your family," Will tells a girl while waiting for his friend (a cameo appearance by DL Hughley) to audition for a comedy show. At first glance, it's just one of those outrageous things meant for laughs and the studio audience obliges. But a closer look at that statement could suggest that the character (inadvertently, I'm sure) takes a rather dim view of homosexuality, framing it as he does within the "I would do this undesirable task in order to achieve that desirable outcome" concept.

Put together, these three instances paint an extremely unflattering image of the non-cishet (a contraction of cis heterosexual, for the uninitiated) community as a whole. But the community that came in for the most egregious treatment was women.

The litany of pickup lines uttered by Will and a couple of his friends — each more ridiculous than the next — is part of an extremely well-worn critique of the show and its protagonist's constant objectification of women. Apologists will point to how it's meant to be funny and that each of his targets turns down his advances as soon as he lets rip with his crass remark. They may even point to the episode Will's Misery, in which he finally gets his comeuppance for his womanising ways: Being hogtied in a cabin in the woods. Some may even go as far as to say that he mended his ways after settling down with Lisa Wilkes (played by Nia Long). Will's objectification of women takes a very sinister and borderline sociopathic turn in the episode The Best Laid Plans, where he dupes a girl with a fake marriage, just so he can sleep with her. For the record, he does stop before it's too late, but that he takes it as far as he does is deeply problematic.

As the series wears on, Will's cousin Ashley (played by Tatyana M Ali) grows older and begins to attract the attention of male suitors, some of whom even employ the Fresh Prince's own methods in their courtship as seen, for instance, in the episode Stop Will! in the Name of Love. It's here that Will's hypocrisy shines through — something the show attempts to point out in an A-ha! moment, but never manages to conclusively lay to rest. In fact, until even well into the final season, Will continues to infantilise Ashley, treat her like a child to be protected and sheltered. This behaviour even overshadows Phil's own patriarchal 'father-as-tyrant' turn in terms of how regressive it is.

And it's not just limited to the Fresh Prince. His best friend Jazz's (played by DJ Jazzy Jeff) endless efforts to woo Will's cousin Hillary (played by Karyn Parsons) cross the line of courtship and lurch into eve-teasing and sexual harassment territory. It should be pointed out that harassing a woman into becoming one's paramour was absolutely fine in the 1990s, particularly in mainstream Hindi cinema, but in 2020, this is most definitely a no-no.

The prince still rules

So how does The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air stack up in 2020? Quite well, according to this writer.

Of course, there's the manner in which Blackness was handled and the all-round acting chops on show. Will Smith's growth as an actor is evident over the course of the series (one of the most successful vehicles built around him) and his final confrontation with his father in the episode Papa's Got a Brand New Excuse and is as moving as any of his work in AliI Am Legend or The Pursuit of Happyness. The series also boasts some unforgettable quotes — a lot of which I find myself referencing to this day — and comedy beats. From the standpoint of form, the sitcom was way ahead of its time in terms of how it took the viewer into confidence and shared an in-joke with her/him. Self-referential jokes, playful digs at cast members and the numerous times the fourth wall was broken over the course of six seasons formed a template for how to do sitcoms right.

That said, the show suffered myriad flaws in terms of its representation of women as window dressing or commodities to be protected (despite the presence of a handful of strong women characters) and its portrayal of homosexuals as no more than undesirable stereotypes, who are only out to prey on innocent straight men. Finally, the two-tone universe in which The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air exists would not go down well at all in 2020, where if you're not doing diversity, you're doing it wrong.

But it's these flaws that make the show the uniquely special six-season gem it is. It's also a reminder particularly in these times of a rabid 'cancel culture' that it is perfectly fine to appreciate one aspect of a piece of art while criticising another — all as long as you appreciate that they are both integral parts of the whole. It flies in the face of the need to airbrush or whitewash history to seem most appropriate and acceptable to whoever happens to comprise your target audience du jour. It's a fist in the air against the idea of selective retrospective censorship or rejection of some parts of art (disavowing certain episodes, deleting certain films from streaming services etc) to make it more palatable to modern sensibilities.

It's also a throwback to an era before tokenism, when shows didn't feel the need to have a family of Singhs or Changs (who did not necessarily fit into the narrative) purely to show how staunchly they supported diversity. It's a lesson that the world isn't black and white, where things are either completely great or entirely terrible; there exist shades of grey in everything and it's you who has to decide what to keep and what to discard.

Ultimately, the biggest lesson for 2020 from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is that you simply cannot have your "When are we going to stop doing this to each other?" without your "I'm saying bing bang bloozy, you and me in the jacuzzi. Whassup?".

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