TV

What The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air taught us about race, sex and family

by Carl Anka

In Netflix’s continuing efforts to ruin your winter social life by making your entertainment life easier, the streaming service, and best friend to us all, will be adding The Fresh Prince of Bel Air to its catalogue, just in time for New Years.

While twenty (!!) years may have passed since the series finale, the life lessons that Will, Jazz and the rest of the Banks family shared with us remain as relevant as ever. Because, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air was more than a sitcom; in fact, it was more than just another black sitcom. Even though it started out as just a way for a nearly-bankrupt Will Smith to get a few quick bucks to pay off a whopping great tax-bill in 1990, the show became a big ol’ televisual Trojan Horse: sneaking in deep musings on love, on acceptance, on sex, on race relations. To use the Twitter parlance, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air was a (mostly) Woke Television Show.

Here’s a look at some of the biggest lessons The Fresh Prince imparted on us because, oh, what a glorious winter bounty we are about to be bestowed…

RACE

The Fresh Prince was, in capital letters, a Black Show. One of the very first times you see Will in his new Bel Air digs, he’s dancing in front of a Malcolm X poster, and he only starts paying attention to his Aunt and Uncle after he finds out Uncle Phil and Viv both attended Civil Rights protest at Selma in 1965.

The Fresh Prince was a guide on everything from racial profiling and police brutality, to interracial dating and racially-biased hiring policies. For many young black viewers, it’d be their first time they’d see these problems depicted onscreen, and for many more viewers, The Fresh Prince just might have been the first time you saw a black family on the television.

Twenty years may have passed since The Fresh Prince ending, but there are still few shows that can match it for talking on racial issues in such an accessible way.

SEX

All members of the Banks’ family wrestled with sex and relationship problems throughout the series. Carlton and Will were always trying to hook up with the hot character actress who turned up that week. Even Uncle Phil and Aunt Viv’s sex life got put under the microscope, most notably in season two episode “The Big Four-Oh” where Phil gave one of the most romantic speeches a husband can give to his wife.

Fast forward to season three - in “Mama's Baby, Carlton's Maybe”, and Carlton tearfully confided in Will that he was a virgin, only for his cousin to calm him down. Carlton would eventually lose his virginity, to a married woman no less in one of the all-time “Oooooh!” live studio audience moments. The women of the Banks family spent many an episode fighting off dinosaur notions of sexuality too, and, by the end of season four, Hilary had posed for Playboy and Ashley had “The Talk” with both Will and her Dad. Their take? Men are all dogs. Fair enough.

FATHERHOOD

The most memorable episode of The Fresh Prince has to be season four’s “Papa's Got a Brand New Excuse” aka “The Episode Where Will’s Father Finally Comes Back”.

It was heartbreaking to see everyone but Will know that his returning dad, Lou, would eventually disappoint and for Will to refuse it until the final moments. By the time Will does see the light, he’s sobbing “How come he don't want me, man?” into Uncle Phil’s arms. Will cried. Uncle Phil cried. We cried.

Watch the episode back and you can hear members of studio audience crying over the final credits. But where Lou shows us what a bad father can be, Uncle Phil showed us the loving, open-minded kind. Black father figures are a fraught archetype and a generation wept when the actor who played Uncle Phil, James Avery, died in 2013. As J.Cole once rapped, Uncle Phil was the sort of father figure many people wished for...

FRIENDSHIP

Will and Jazz’s handshake may go down into buddy folklore, but The Fresh Prince’s best friendships came from the Banks family at large. Yeah, Will and the Banks spent 80% of an episode roasting each other, but there was no doubt the central cast of The Fresh Prince loved each other. Even Geoffrey, the world’s greatest butler and master of the sneak diss, was capable of moments of great affection and sincerity. We insult you because we care.

CLASS

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While TV audiences had seen black middle class families on television before, The Fresh Prince was maybe the first show to address the presumed privileges of being black and wealthy head on.

In early episodes, Will wasted no time calling out Phil, Carlton and Hilary on “forgetting where they” came from and closing themselves off from the black community with all their money…. Until he eventually realises calling a black person an “Uncle Tom” is one of the most harmful things a person can say. It all came to a head in season four’s “Blood Is Thicker Than Mud“ episode, when Carlton slapped down a black frat brother for calling him a sellout: “Being black isn't what I'm trying to be... It's what I am.”

WHY IT ALL STILL MATTERS IN 2016 (MAYBE NOW MORE THAN EVER)

Earlier this year when asked about a possible reboot, Will Smith said “I don’t think ever—like, pretty close to when Hell freezes over. Pretty close, like, we’re gonna leave that one alone.” While he wouldn’t be the first to backtrack on a “no, never, never-ever”, that’s a pretty strong statement. But with DeRay Mckesson’s Black Lives Matter movement at the forefront of as strong a push for societal change as there’s been in decades, who knows...

During the original show’s run, NBC toyed with ending The Fresh Prince at the fourth and fifth series finales. At every point, people involved in the making of The Fresh Prince were scared of the show running too long because they realised just how special, just how much of a one-off the show was.

Twenty years on, and it’s clear that the The Fresh Prince of Bel Air was more than just a sitcom, or a vehicle for a family friendly, easy-going rapper to pay off his tax bills. It was bottled lightning: Yes, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air was a funny show.

Yes, it was capable of incredible moments of drama. But what it really was, was a guide to life for a generation of young people, giving you everything you needed to know about life, love, and moments of happiness and great sorrow. And, in case you forgot, it had one hell of a catchy theme song (just don’t worry about the second verse...)