How The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air changed black culture in the 90’s

 

The 1990’s were a decade of monumental events shaping African American culture in North America to be as it is today. Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 27 years, showing resilience and power as a leader. Rodney King, an African-American taxi driver, was severely beaten by Los Angeles police officers, who were later found not guilty. The displeasure of the citizens of L.A was clearly seen and heard, as they caused the biggest racial prompted riot in the 20th century, causing the city of Los Angeles over $1 billion in damage with 54 people dead, 2000 injured and 8000 arrested. [1] Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G, some of the greatest names in rap history, were both murdered. Six African-American individuals became mayors in different states, breaking the cycle of Caucasian mayors. Mae Carol Jemison was the first ever African-American female to travel in space. Tiger Woods won the golf master’s tournament and became the first ever African-American to win. [2]

These are just a few of many, many more incredible accomplishments which the African-American community achieved within 10 years. Those 10 years were a great push for more negative and positive change to come in the 2000’s. Within the decade, a new television show, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, was aired 1990 – 1996. Starring rapper turned actor/comedian Will Smith, this cult classic sitcom documented the life of young Will moving from Philadelphia to Bel Air to live with his aunt, uncle, and cousins. Will’s trials and tribulations were shown on the show weekly, of him tackling high school, adapting to a ritzy neighborhood, and being black. The Fresh Prince was without a doubt one of the most eye-opening, entertaining, and informative shows for people of all races to have a revelation of what black culture truly is.

While being irresistibly comical and relatable, the Fresh Prince of Bel Air taught many lessons. During the nineties, all-black casts on sitcoms became the new and trendy thing for TV networks to do. In the eighties, sitcoms such as Diff’rent Strokes, The Jeffersons and most notably The Cosby Show. Being close to bankrupt from his rap career in the 80’s, Will Smith signed a contract with NBC to start filming the show, based loosely on Will’s life and the producer’s.

The main characters on the show were the Banks family; aunt Vivian and uncle Phil, cousins Hillary, Ashley and Carlton, their butler Jeffrey, and of course Will. The Banks are your stereotypical rich family – they live in a lavish mansion, belong to country clubs, drive expensive cars, wear nice clothes, go to private schools and obtain fabulous careers. The only thing which divides them from the rest of their neighborhood is that they’re black. The show pokes fun of that continuously through the seasons and shows the struggles which they go through.

In Season 1, Episode 6 named “Mistaken Identity”, Will and Carlton drive down their father’s law partner’s fancy Mercedes-Benz to palm springs for him. On the way down, the two get stopped by a police officer. Being street-smart, Will catches on and follows the orders, yet a very naive Carlton who thinks they’re being stopped for speeding persists on communicating to the officers about the truth and how they aren’t criminals. After being held under arrest for a string of car thefts, their parents pick them up and all is well.

The turning point of this episode is when Will and Carlton have a conversation at home about their evening. For the first time, Carlton had experienced racial discrimination and was truly in denial. Being brought up in a safe, sheltered environment, he was protected and stayed out of trouble. Will, on the other hand, had spent most of his life in West Philadelphia slums and was no stranger to being a minority due to his skin tone.

After many statements made by Carlton to defend the police officers, Will tells him; “You just don’t get it, do you? No map is going to save you and neither is your glee club, or your fancy Bel-Air address or who your daddy is. Because when you’re driving in a nice car in a strange neighborhood, none of that matters. They only see one thing.” Will then points to his cousin’s face, implying that the color of his skin will always be seen before anything else about him. Carlton later asks his father if he would’ve stopped a car “driving two miles an hour”, and Phil replies “I asked myself that question the first time I was stopped.”, leaving Carlton in a state of confusion as to why he and Will were really stopped. [3]

This episode holds a very strong and important message about privilege, naivete, and prejudism which still remains extremely relevant in 2017. White police officers, especially in North America, have been well known to have a bias towards their own race. In 2015, 1134 African-American people were unnecessarily murdered by police officers in America. [4] Research shows that 69% of those people were unarmed, non-violent and only suspected of committing a crime, meaning that more than half of them were virtually innocent. And despite essentially committing manslaughter, 99% of the officers in the country have been convicted of any crime. [5]

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air reminded us in this episode that people of color will always have a disadvantage due to years of racial based ignorance and stereotypes. It is embedded in our culture that black people are a threat. They have been accused of being thieves, thugs, criminals and so much worse due to astigmatism created by white people. White police officers think it’s acceptable to kill and abuse an innocent bystander because of the color of their skin threatens them. Police brutality is never okay no matter the reasoning, but having it happen due to someone’s race should be absolutely unallowed. When this episode aired in 1990, shortly before the Rodney King incident was publicised, it certainly gave NBC’s viewers of all ages, genders, and races a wake-up call about the racial injustice that Americans have been plagued with during all of history.

In effort to break down stereotypes put on African-American people and turn the tables on racial success, the Fresh Prince created many characters, plots, and storylines to show people of all races that your ethnicity does not change who you are, and cannot infringe into how you live your life.

The Fresh Prince certainly did question what being “black” really meant. Throughout the seasons, Will is always teasing Carlton for not being “black enough” due to him not living a stereotypical life of a person of color in the 90’s. In Season 1, Episode 23 “72 Hours, Will challenges Carlton to a bet that he wouldn’t last a weekend in Compton, Los Angeles’ most infamous neighborhood. Carlton takes on the bet, and soon enough fits in perfectly with Will’s friend group. After hearing what dangerous things naive Carlton was preparing to do, Will became concerned and brought him back home.

Yet again, the two cousins find themselves in a disagreement. Carlton tells Will “..you always act like you carry around some measure of blackness that I don’t live up to.” An attacked Will replies with “Wait a minute, you never judged me? You do everything except carry around a big ‘ol gavel. You act like I’m an idiot just because I talk different.” [6]

In another episode from Season 4, Episode 8 “Blood Is Thicker Than Mud, Will and Carlton try out for an all-black fraternity at their university. Will is loved by everyone and accepted, yet the guys dislike Carlton because of his background. During an argument, Carlton gives an unforgettable speech. “Being black isn’t what I’m trying to be. It’s what I am. I’m running the same race and jumping the same hurdles you are, so why are you tripping me up? You said we need to stick together, but you don’t even know what that means. If you ask me, you’re the real sellout.” [7]

Will and Carlton are polar opposites. One being privileged, well dressed, poised and groomed, while the other is rough, wild, eccentric and quite ghetto. Will represents what most people think an African-American person would be like. He says things like “yo” and listens to rap music. He disobeys his parents and is free-spirited. Carlton, despite being as black as Will, acts differently. More white. He wears fancy clothes, studies hard at school, has an extensive vocabulary and always obeys the rules.

Having two main characters on one of the biggest television shows be so same but different at the same time truly opened up viewer’s eyes as to what stereotypes we subconsciously believe in. Black people can be intelligent, successful and ordinary. They can live in nice parts of town, go to good schools and be presentable. Carlton is not any less “black” than Will because he belongs to his school’s glee club. Will is not a thug or an invalid because he grew up in a slum, or wears his hat backward.

As human beings, we tend to assume things about people based on their looks and how they act. Our privileges and disadvantages should not divide us as people, especially as to how we treat and view others. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air consistently made it clear that your race does not define who you are. It is your skin color, and your heritage. It is not a synonym to describe your personality or how you act. As a society, we need to stop using race to divide each other, especially to those in the same race as us. As Uncle Phil says at the end of Season 4 Episode 8, “When are we gonna stop doing this to each other?” [8]

The nineties were a time of change and evolution. The events which took place during the decade shaped how the future 2000’s would be like for African-Americans in the U.S.A. The way which African-American people have been treated has changed drastically throughout the years. There has been positive change such as when Barack Obama was elected as the first African-American president in the U.S, and there has been negative change such as continuous police brutality against black people and the recent comeback of the Klu-Klux-Klan.

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air sent a strong message to Americans and viewers worldwide of being yourself, accepting your heritage and that anyone can live in a huge mansion and become a judge if they work hard enough, even if they’re a minority.

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[1] http://www.cnn.com/2013/09/18/us/los-angeles-riots-fast-facts/index.html

[2] https://www.thoughtco.com/african-american-history-timeline-1990-1999-45447

[3] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0583008/trivia?tab=qt&ref_=tt_trv_qu

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/dec/31/the-counted-police-killings-2015-young-black-men

[5] https://mappingpoliceviolence.org/

[6]  http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0582934/trivia?tab=qt&ref_=tt_trv_qu

[7] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0582945/trivia?tab=qt&ref_=tt_trv_qu

[8] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0582945/trivia?tab=qt&ref_=tt_trv_qu

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