Taking The Fresh Prince of Bel Air Seriously
The Fresh Prince of Bel Air was a serious show. While comically disarming like Will Smith’s particular flavor of parent-approved bubblegum raps at the time, it used a smaller scale to signify just how much hip-hop culture would propagate worldwide through Will’s cultural influence on the world of affluence immediately surrounding him. He hadn’t been at Bel Air Academy a week and the sons of lawyers, doctors, and Hollywood agents were rocking their uniform blazers inside out and ties around their heads.
Extending beyond that initial message, the show managed to not alienate in its address of the integral issues of being black in a white world. A discourse on black socioeconomic assimilation unfolds dually in Will’s dynamic with the Banks family and their relationship with the outside (white) world. The wealthy family initially clashes with Will because they are embarrassed by him and the behavior he learned in downtrodden West Philadelphia. Though the family eventually warms up to him and Will flourishes just how his mother intended by sending him there, the initial clash is an interesting look at how different black socioeconomic classes view and interact with each other, even within the same bloodline. The show continues and somewhat evolves into a study of nature versus nurture as Will eventually attends college and seems to be on track for a life he may not have enjoyed in Philly susceptible to playground bullies amongst other threats.
Will’s development and intricacies aside, the members of the Banks family are also complex. Uncle Phil dreamt beyond a farm boy upbringing to become a reputable judge. Carlton is racially profiled in a Mercedes Benz, but shook to his core from his first brush with crime. (the dark-skinned) Aunt Vivian is a very inspiring African American Studies teacher. Ashley and Hillary are sheltered and privileged with more stereotypically white dispositions. They are human, defined by experiences instead of color.
More than Empire now, or The Cosby Show before, The Fresh Prince slyly makes the best attempt at capturing the entire multi-faceted black experience through family.