Revisiting The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air: A flawed but important masterpiece for these airbrushed occasions – The News Everyday

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In a time when the battle for Black rights has regained its momentum and located its manner back into the headlines, does The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air stand as much as scrutiny?

What makes a basic? How does a much-talked-about movie or TV reveal of its time go on to achieve cult standing? In our new column, Rewind to Unwind, we break down classics to see how they stand in 2020, and the way they’ve aged (if in any respect).

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Why The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air?

Well, why not?

From its opening sequence, full with that unforgettable track — one which needn’t be hyperlinked right here, as a result of should you’ve ever seen the reveal, it is unlikely you may ever overlook it — and its near-unending record of celeb cameos, previous all of the cracks, crevasses and holes within the fourth wall, all the plan to the number of social points highlighted (deliberately or in any other case), the reveal is a veritable triumph in daytime tv historical past. Originally aired on NBC between 1990 and 1996, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is the story of how a reasonably street-smart (and equally book-stupid) man strikes from West Philadelphia to Bel-Air, California to stay together with his uncle and aunt, Philip and Vivian Banks whereas they search to offer him a greater life.

Along the plan, he learns classes about family, values, friendship, life and so forth — all whereas delivering one stable PSA after one other. But whereas such themes as medicine, gun management, class, fatherhood and peer stress had been explored and, (typically) resolved and tied up neatly with a bow by the point a 24-minute-long episode appear to an in depth, the sitcom’s (and it definitely lived as much as the ‘com’ a part of that abbreviation) strongest discourse surrounded race and racism. That the collection aired at a time when the battle for Black rights was the subject of widespread and heated dialogue — significantly in gentle of the Rodney King beating and the next Los Angeles riots — gave its message that rather more gravitas and energy.

Now, 28 years since an unarmed Black man was mercilessly thrashed by 5 White cops, we discover ourselves within the post-George Floyd period — where police brutality, extra and apathy claimed the lifetime of an unarmed Black man — where the battle for Black rights has regained its momentum and located its manner back into the headlines. Let’s discover out if The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air stands as much as scrutiny in 2020.


Over the previous 5 years, Uncle Phil (the late James Avery), Aunt Vivian (Janet Hubert/Daphne Maxwell Reid), Geoffrey Butler (Joseph Marcell), Will Smith (Will Smith, curiously ample) and the remainder of the gang have been the subject of some dialogue following a few stray soundbites a couple of attainable reboot (with Smith enjoying the position of the Banks family patriarch), a spin-off and the fan-made movie trailer. It was last yr that cinematographer Morgan Cooper unveiled a darkish and dramatic Bel-Air in his four-or-so-minute lengthy trailer — one which earned fulsome reward from Smith, who appeared to counsel that there is likely to be one thing to this new avatar.

Thirty years in the past, nonetheless, being a part of a tv reveal was most likely not a part of the then-just-a-rapper’s (as in comparison with the rapper/actor/producer we all know now) plans, however a tax debt of practically $three million to the Internal Revenue Service pressured him to make his first severe foray into performing. The reveal, like so many movies within the three many years to observe, was decidedly a Will Smith automobile. Despite the fascinating premise, a mixture of expertise (Avery, Hubert, Butler and Alfonso Ribeiro as Carlton Banks) and rawness (Tatyana M Ali, Karyn Parsons and the star of the reveal himself), and the racial tensions-marked period during which it was made, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air had no right to be as victorious as it will definitely was. After all, it was merely a manner for a younger rapper to repay his pending taxes. Right?

Not fairly, as a result of it quickly turned clear that Smith’s arrival on the Banks residence — as captured in that aforementioned opening sequence — would change into as epochal, as era-defining and as a lot of a cultural hurricane as a sure Fräulein Maria’s arrival on the joyless mansion belonging to the Family von Trapp.

An amalgam of snappy writing, a great steadiness of high-quality performing and the type of scenery-chewing that types the staple of sitcoms, sharp comedic timing, relatable conditions and a stable grounding in family values and social justice noticed Smith make the journey from unscrupulous and incorrigible insurgent and not using a trigger to a considerably further mature and accountable grownup over the course of six seasons.

But for all of the positives — of which there are a sizeable no. — and components that make the reveal as related and compelling as ever within the current day, it did include its justifiable share of bum notes — that appeared a bit off back within the 1990s, however are positively jarring at this time — and themes which have actually not aged properly.

Still contemporary

While the underlying theme that taking assist to enhance your life does not make one delicate or ‘bougie’, or in truth injury one’s avenue cred was definitely notable and distinctive within the early 1990s, the collection’ dealing with of race and racial prejudice is maybe its most putting side.

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? collectively type the quadfecta that defines the showrunners’ method to tackling racism. These episodes shone gentle on three distinct variations of prejudice: White-on-Black (where Will and Carlton are arrested for driving a Mercedes-Benz “too gradual” by way of a elaborate neighbourhood), Black-on-Black (where Carlton is discriminated towards by a university fraternity chief for ‘not being Black ample’) and Black-on-White (where Will’s family opposes his aunt’s choice to marry a White man — performed by a suitably awkward Diedrich Bader). And every of these episodes appear to an in depth with classes realized and all involved groups wiser and higher for the expertise.

And whereas all of them contained fourth among the many record talked about above — Those Were the Days — might be essentially the most highly effective by way of its message. To summarise, Phil and Vivian are paid a go to by their good friend from academy, an activist on the run from the legislation. While her arrival evokes a streak of activism in Will, it devolves into the type of clichéd selection that’s corresponding to the social media activism of the current day. It is in the direction of the top of the episode that Will learns that attempting to “Fight the system!” with out correctly understanding stated system just serves to undermine the battle — one thing to which at this time’s hashtag warriors would do properly to pay heed.

Beyond this quartet of episodes, there are moments littered all around the six seasons of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air where an effort is made to redefine what it means to be Black within the 1990s. This is clear from as early because the pilot episode, where Will accuses his uncle of getting grown ‘delicate’ and forgetting who he’s and where he comes from.

“I grew up on the streets similar to you. I encountered bigotry you may not think about. Now you might have a pleasant poster of Malcolm X in your wall. I heard the brother converse. I study each phrase he wrote. Believe me, I do know where I come from!” Phil shoots back.

When it involves his personal dedication to the battle for Black rights in Those Were the Days, Phil (a decide on the time) tells his activist good friend, “I’ve a family, and I select to not battle within the streets. I’ve an workplace to battle from and I’ve fought and gained cases for honest housing, affirmative motion, health care, and I’m not ashamed to write down an enormous fats cheque for one thing I consider in and that does not make me any much less dedicated than you, so do not you dare look down your rattling nostril at me!”

Further, so as to perceive The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, it is very important perceive the thought of being Black espoused by The Cosby Show (that aired from 1984 to 1992)  As this text argues, “[The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air] makes an attempt to reconcile what The Cosby Show failed to do, when it portrayed Blackness as a monolithic upper-class identification. Like Cosby, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air desires to interrogate Blackness.” And if the character of Carlton is a throwback to the Bill Cosby concept of Black, Will is most definitely further Black — the “further genuine” inner-city model. As the article provides, “Through Will’s character, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air desires to deliver to gentle conversations about class and Blackness, and further particularly about how the category distinction impacts how one acts out their Blackness.”

Powered largely by Avery’s superlative performing chops, energised by a script that just about effortlessly blends moments of pathos with an irrepressibly irreverent script filled with brutal references (from the Menendez brothers to Supreme Court decide Clarence Thomas and from Madonna’s conical bra to Micheal Jackson, none had been spared) and a number of cameos (by actors, musicians, sportspersons, politicians, supermodels, celebrities and one nowhere-near-as-orange-as-today actual property tycoon), the reveal dealt with quite a lot of subjects — typically seen by way of the lens of Blackness — with various ranges of finesse. Some, like peer stress, Will’s seek for a father determine and rising up had been dealt with quite higher than others.

Past its use-by date

“Say child, with all that butt, you is likely to be needing a hatchback!”

Now that is the a part of the piece during which we enter the bizarre zone, the quite dodgy zone and the downright offensive and regressive zone. Make what you’ll of this supposed sales pitch for a automobile that Will thought of not just applicable however hilarious (You’d Better Shop Around), however the issue while you make one group of people — on this case a group — just about the only real focus of a reveal’s narrative, there is a tendency to demonise, trivialise and marginalise different sections of humanity and infrequently, simply overlook about them totally.

As famous above, the reveal was made at a time of effervescent racial tensions in Los Angeles, lower than 20 miles from the Bel-Air. And whereas it is definitely true that relations between Whites and Blacks had been experiencing a serious low, there was a 3rd racial group that was additionally experiencing strife within the metropolis: The Korean-American group, significantly after African-American 15-year-old Latasha Harlins had been shot lifeless by comfort store proprietor Soon Ja Du. It is due to this fact just a little unusual looking back to see the near-complete absence of Korean-Americans for starters, but in addition the non-representation of just about each different non-White, non-Black racial group from the reveal. Even the reveal’s ridiculously ornate galaxy of cameos (that that is the third time I’m mentioning it ought to underline simply what number of cameos there have been) featured predominantly Black personalities and round 10 White ones.

Moving on, the subsequent group — or further precisely, set of teams — to get the brief shrift was the LGBT group. Bear in thoughts that this was within the early 1990s and Q, I and A had been over a decade away from being added to the abbreviation. In the three segments within the reveal (that I recall to the perfect of my skill) that homosexuality is referenced in a roundabout way or one other, it is by no means in a positive sense. The first that involves thoughts takes place within the episode Will Gets a Job, during which the stereotype of piercing a selected ear if you’re homosexual is additional perpetuated (with parrots on shoulders substituting for earrings in ears). In the primary half of the two-part collection finale and tangled in a large number of his personal making, Will is on the hunt for an condominium and visits a possible landlord recognized, Peter Clark. Our protagonist finds the condominium to be excellent and reasonably priced. And when he asks Peter when he plans to maneuver out so the Fresh Prince can shift in, the previous crosses his legs and says fairly lasciviously, “I’m not transferring out” impact. Will seems into the camera. Fearfully.

Finally, and probably essentially the most tone-deaf of all, was the reference to homosexuality and incest all contained in a single clumsy pickup line within the episode Ain’t No Business Like Show Business. “Hey lady, you look so good, I’d marry your brother simply to get in your loved ones,” Will tells a lady whereas ready for his good friend (a cameo look by DL Hughley) to audition for a comedy reveal. At first look, it is simply a kind of outrageous issues meant for laughs and the studio viewers obliges. But a better take a look at that assertion might counsel that the character (inadvertently, I’m certain) takes a quite dim view of homosexuality, framing it as he does inside the “I’d do that undesirable process so as to obtain that fascinating final result” idea.

Put collectively, these three cases paint a particularly unflattering picture of the non-cishet (a contraction of cis heterosexual, for the uninitiated) group as an entire. But the group that appear in for essentially the most egregious therapy was ladies.

The litany of pickup traces uttered by Will and a few his associates — every further ridiculous than the subsequent — is a part of a particularly well-worn critique of the reveal and its protagonist’s fixed objectification of girls. Apologists will level to the way it’s meant to be humorous and that every of his targets turns down his advances as quickly as he lets rip together with his crass comment. They may even level to the episode Will’s Misery, during which he lastly will get his comeuppance for his womanising methods: Being hogtied in a cabin within the woods. Some may even go so far as to say that he mended his methods after settling down with Lisa Wilkes (performed by Nia Long). Will’s objectification of girls takes a really sinister and borderline sociopathic flip within the episode The Best Laid Plans, where he dupes a lady with a pretend marriage, simply so he can sleep along with her. For the record, he does cease earlier than it is too late, however that he takes it so far as he does is deeply problematic.

As the collection wears on, Will’s cousin Ashley (performed by Ali) grows older and begins to draw the eye of male suitors, a few of whom even make use of the Fresh Prince’s personal strategies of their courtship as seen, as an illustration, within the episode Stop Will! within the Name of Love. It’s right here that Will’s hypocrisy shines by way of — one thing the reveal makes an attempt to level out in an A-ha! second, however by no means manages to conclusively lay to relaxation. In reality, till even properly into the ultimate season, Will continues to infantilise Ashley, deal with her like a toddler to be protected and sheltered. This behaviour even overshadows Phil’s personal patriarchal ‘father-as-tyrant’ flip by way of how regressive it’s.

And it is not simply restricted to the Fresh Prince. His greatest good friend Jazz’s (performed by DJ Jazzy Jeff) limitless efforts to woo Will’s cousin Hillary (performed by Karyn Parsons) cross the road of courtship and lurch into eve-teasing and sexual harassment territory. It needs to be identified that harassing a girl into changing into one’s paramour was completely wonderful within the 1990s, significantly in mainstream Hindi cinema, however in 2020, that is most positively a no-no.

The prince still guidelines

So how does The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air stack up in 2020? Quite properly, based on this author.

Of course, there’s the method during which Blackness was dealt with and the all-round performing chops on reveal. Will Smith’s development as an actor is clear over the course of the collection (probably the most victorious autos constructed round him) and his concluding confrontation together with his father within the episode Papa’s Got a Brand New Excuse and is as transferring as any of his work in Ali, I Am Legend or The Pursuit of Happyness. The collection additionally boasts some unforgettable quotes — a whole lot of which I discover myself referencing to today — and comedy beats. From the standpoint of type, the sitcom was manner forward of its time by way of the way it took the viewer into confidence and shared an in-joke along with her/him. Self-referential jokes, playful digs at forged members and the quite a few occasions the fourth wall was damaged over the course of six seasons fashioned a template for methods to do sitcoms right.

That stated, the reveal suffered myriad flaws by way of its illustration of girls as window dressing or commodities to be protected (regardless of the presence of a handful of robust ladies characters) and its portrayal of homosexuals as not more than undesirable stereotypes, who’re just out to prey on harmless straight males. Finally, the two-tone universe during which The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air exists wouldn’t go down properly in any respect in 2020, where should you’re not doing range, you are doing it fallacious.

But it is these flaws that make the reveal the uniquely particular six-season gem it’s. It’s additionally a reminder significantly in these occasions of a rabid ‘cancel tradition’ that it’s completely wonderful to understand one side of a bit of artwork whereas criticising one other — all so long as you respect that they’re each integral components of the entire. It flies within the face of the necessity to airbrush or whitewash historical past to appear most applicable and acceptable to whoever occurs to comprise your audience du jour. It’s a fist within the air towards the thought of selective retrospective censorship or rejection of some components of artwork (disavowing sure episodes, deleting sure movies from streaming companies and so forth) to make it further palatable to fashionable sensibilities.

It’s additionally a throwback to an period earlier than tokenism, when reveals did not really feel the necessity to have a family of Singhs or Changs (who didn’t essentially match into the narrative) purely to point out how staunchly they supported range. It’s a lesson that the world is not black and white, where issues are both utterly nice or totally horrible; there exist shades of gray in all the things and it is you who has to resolve what to maintain and what to discard.

Ultimately, the most important lesson for 2020 from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is that you just can’t have your “When are we going to cease doing this to one another?” with out your “I’m saying bing bang bloozy, you and me within the jacuzzi. Whassup?”.

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