In West Philadelphia… Most times, when a person or group of people make history, they’re rarely aware as it’s happening — and all too often we take it for granted. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is a perfect example — an aesthetically and culturally impactful series that also happened to debunk many of society’s views towards African Americans. Thirty years after its NBC debut, the original cast reunited to celebrate that very notion while also leaving no stone unturned in an intense and nostalgic reunion special for HBO Max.
As promised, the show’s set was re-created, where Will Smith, Carlton Banks (Alfonso Ribeiro), Ashley Banks (Tatyana Ali), Geoffrey (Joseph Marcell), Hilary Banks (Karyn Parsons), Jazz (DJ Jazzy Jeff), Little Nicky (Ross Bagley) and Aunt Vivian (Daphne Maxwell Reid) reunited. The cast spoke about their unique experiences in being a part of the brainchild of Quincy Jones and Benny Medina and how it influenced their lives along with the world around them.
In reminiscing about The Fresh Prince’s infancy stages, it became clear that Smith’s inexperience as an actor was the perfect parallel to his relationship with his fictional relatives, the Banks family. An “outsider” in both instances, Smith was able to transition from Philadelphia’s inner city to a place of privilege and a life filled with limitless opportunities. Without belaboring the point, it was a case of art imitating life and vice versa.
Someday Your Prince Will Be in Effect: At the time, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was one of three Black shows on TV. Traditionally, the background of the writers on these shows were from entirely different backgrounds than its actors. Yet, it was the collaborative effort between the show’s cast and its creatives that brought about perhaps its most important contribution. The Black experience that we saw on The Fresh Prince was real — it was raw, and it was authentic. Similar to The Cosby Show from years prior, it gave to the public the variety of what it was to be a person of color living in America. They experience the extremes of life the same as every other race, and this was most prevalent in the dynamic between Will and Carlton.
The cultural contrasts of these two were extremely black and white, and it was easily digestible to the public. They were able to learn from each other and realized in this process that they were more alike than they were different. Will’s eyes were opened to a person whose life experiences were not yet tainted by the ills of racism and prejudice while Carlton became exposed to negative stereotypes, classism, and that “glass ceiling” that exists for people of color regardless of their level of success. The differences in resources that existed in Will’s former, urban life and his newfound suburban one presented situations that are still relevant, even in 2020. In the inaugural season, “Mistaken Identity” shed light on the division of race and class in America, and it still resonates with the current relationship between African Americans and the police department, for better or worse.
Father Knows Best: The heart and soul of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was not the show’s star, but its patriarch, the late James Avery. Due to his untimely passing in December of 2013, Will’s beloved “Uncle Phil” was the only original cast member not in attendance during the reunion. Some of the cast members gave heartfelt accounts about the memories shared with Avery, along with how he inspired them both as actors and as human beings. His daughter on the show, Tatyana Ali, spoke about what he taught her regarding the importance of The Fresh Prince. “What we do is not for us. It is not about us,” Ali stated. “We are here to bring dignity. To represent, to expand, and to push forward.”
She’s not wrong. While Will and Carlton may have brought out the most laughs, it was the connection between the titular star and Philip Banks that provided the most lessons. After almost a decade of Heathcliff Huxtable, “Uncle Phil” was an apt transition to being that positive male role model in the Black community. In reality, Avery realized Smith’s potential, as well as what his position represented in totality. He believed that Smith was in such a unique situation that it was his responsibility to do the role justice and to understand the severity of what The Fresh Prince would mean to television and its impact on future generations.
As an actor, Avery pushed the Fresh Prince to new levels, and no moment was more evident than in what was perhaps the show’s most iconic scene when Will’s father lets him down once again. Uncle Phil was a teacher to everyone he encountered, and he assisted in the maturation process of his fictional family. He was the show’s true patriarch and will forever be missed.
The Mother of All Battles: An infamously taboo topic within the cast of The Fresh Prince was the unceremonious departure of the show’s original “Aunt Viv,” Janet Hubert. For the first time in 27 years, Smith and Hubert sat amongst each other, hashed out their differences, and reconciled with each other in an amazing way. “As a family, we have our things that we talk about and then we have our things that we don’t talk about,” Smith told his former castmates. “We never really, together, publicly talk about Janet. And what happened. And, for me, it felt like I couldn’t celebrate 30 years of Fresh Prince without finding a way to celebrate Janet.” The conversation that ensued consisted of a multitude of emotions, the exposure of feelings long suppressed, and the expression of words left unsaid. The major takeaways from Will and Janet’s interaction was the beauty of forgiveness and the fact that, eventually, time will heal all wounds.
The representation of the original Aunt Vivian’s appearance also spoke to the show’s larger cultural significance. The Fresh Prince was a television program that pushed the envelope, set trends, and translated throughout many generations. The ’90s was an especially important time in fashion, and The Fresh Prince was at the forefront of that movement. Hip-hop was coming into its own, and the influence of Will Smith’s style increased its popularity. Every Monday night, millions of viewers both young and old would turn the channel to NBC in order to view the exclusive pair of Air Jordans that the show’s star would have on his feet. DJ Jazzy Jeff’s cool and colorful style was indicative of the time, and Hilary Banks’ fashion sense set the bar for the privileged twentysomething female growing up during that era. In competition with ABC’s Monday Night Football, even then the public knew that The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was something different, a show that provided both comedy as well as commentary on a weekly basis.
Sit on My Throne… On September 10, 1990, we were introduced to a young man from West Philadelphia, filled with potential. Thirty years later, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air still lives in the psyche of fans from all walks of life. With the emergence of syndication and digital-streaming platforms, this classic television program has been able to maintain a consistent level of relevance in an ever-changing entertainment culture. The importance of family, the responsibility to inspire others in a positive manner, and pride in oneself are virtues that should be a priority regardless of race, gender, or ethnic background. That is why this show remains so essential, and that is why this reunion hit so hard.
Where’s It Streaming? Head to the Banks estate now on HBO Max.