This morning I loaded up Netflix and was met with the best news I’ve had all week – The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, my favourite show and the origin of the nickname I pretended to hate for three years at university, is available to stream.
Although I was two years old when it went off the air, I, and many others in my generation, grew up on double-bill reruns of the show on the UK’s various short-lived low cable channels; Trouble, Virgin 1, etc. Re-watching the first couple of episodes got me thinking – when was the last time I saw a black-led show this relevant?
The best recent example I can think of is Donald Glover’s Atlanta – a gorgeously shot, well-written, hilarious and deeply thoughtful sitcom set in Atlanta’s underground hip hop scene. Like the Fresh Prince, it features a young, multi-talented rapper/actor, a contemporary soundtrack, and satire of black popular culture. But, at its core, it’s one more story about young black men in the ghetto flaunting drugs and guns, with music their only hope of escape.
The Fresh Prince starred, at the time, one of the biggest hip hop stars in the world in Will Smith, but also portrayed an unapologetically successful black family, headed by Philip Banks, a powerful lawyer (and in later seasons, judge), and Vivian, a well educated, strong minded black woman.
Most of the show’s humour revolved around the clash between Will’s inner city, laid back personality and the Banks’ Bel Air surroundings. Uncle Phil is often exasperated by Will’s antics, Will pokes fun at his cousin Carlton for acting ‘white’. But it’s the moments when these themes really hit home that have stuck in my memory.
Will holding back tears as he begs Carlton not to start carrying a gun after they are robbed. Carlton defiantly refusing to let a black fraternity leader call him a sell-out. Uncle Phil comforting Will after his deadbeat father walks out on him again. Carlton struggling to accept that the cops who pulled him over and arrested him in a Mercedes may have been racist.
When people complain about the representation of black people in Hollywood, this is, I believe, what they are missing. The late 80’s and early 90’s saw a boom of black sitcoms that dealt with similar territory – Family Matters, the Cosby Show, and its spin-off A Different World were other notable examples. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air bathed in the glow of hip hop, arguably Black America’s most important cultural invention, but also showed us a more diverse spectrum of successful black people than rappers and athletes. Through references to Phil and Vivian’s past in the civil rights movement, it put emphasis on the importance of education and activism. In the very first episode, Will accuses Phil of forgetting his roots, and Phil growls: “That’s a nice poster of Malcolm X you have on your wall. I heard the brother speak.“
On its surface The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was a cheesy 90’s sitcom, and there’s a lot to remember fondly about that aspect of it: The shirts, the dancing, the quips and chat-up lines, that theme tune! But to me, it will always be so much more.
Anyway, BRB, I’ve got 148 episodes to binge watch…