features

Black Womanhood On 'The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air'

By Stereo Williams

The Fresh Prince of Bel Air ended its six season run on May 20, 1996.

From 1990 to 1996, the beloved sitcom was an NBC staple and has endured twenty-five years later as a hallmark of 1990s TV. If you’re an 80’s baby, then you likely grew up on it; and if you’re younger, you also probably grew up on it via endless reruns in syndication. If you’re my nephew, then your mom bought you the DVD collection for your 13th birthday. In my family, this is a sitcom that spans at least three generations! 

The series was based loosely on the life of executive producer Benny Medina and you know the premise: Will Smith is a teenage boy from West Philly who gets sent to live with his rich aunt and uncle in posh Bel Air, California to keep him out of trouble. The setup is familiar to many of us who'd grown up in the hoods of Philly, Chicago, Detroit, Oakland etc.; we often got sent to ”visit” relatives for the same reasons. Maybe it was so we could see something different, or have the chance to become something different. 

So we go on this journey with teenaged Will, as he moves to one of the richest neighborhoods in America. Aunt Viv and Uncle Phil, as a professor and a lawyer, represent “new money” and what Black families could be with hard work and resources. Taking cues from The Cosby Show's upper middle class Huxtables, the show's early conflicts all involve the Banks family's stuffy decorum colliding against Will's hood ethics. So much of the show's humor (and conflict) centered on Will clashing with his uptight-but-loving Uncle Phil or his corny-but-loyal cousin Carlton, but it’s not so often that we talk about the women of the show. 

So who are the Queens of ...Bel Air?

Quite honestly ain’t no show without Aunt Viv! She is a representation of so many Black grannies, mamas and aunties who stay adopting somebody’s child. Both professor and mother, Aunt Viv often advocates for Will, and lovingly puts him in his place when needed. At home, she's a shoulder and a voice of reason; professionally, she's committed to education and Black excellence. As Aunt Viv, actress Janet Hubert was able to portray the character as uniquely layered; Vivian Banks was a dancer, an orator, a wife and a mom. 

Of course, the behind-the-scenes rift between Smith and Hubert has been well-documented. She would leave the show after Season Three and the role of Aunt Viv was recast with Daphne Maxwell-Reid. Hubert would explain that Smith's emerging star power and their bad relationship led to her being branded "difficult" and it hurt her career tremendously. During 2020's teary-eyed Fresh Prince reunion special, Hubert and Smith finally had a painful conversation about her departure from the show and the way he'd fueled her marginalization in the industry, stating to her former co-star that “calling a Black woman 'difficult' in Hollywood is the kiss of death.” 

Recasting Hubert with the lighter-skinned Reid, while no slight to Reid, (who is a talented and acclaimed actress herself), has always felt like a missed opportunity to present darker-skinned Black women in a prominent light at that time on television. Reid's portrayal of Aunt Viv was warm and charming, but something was missing after Hubert left The Fresh Prince...

I didn’t have the words for what made "O.G. Aunt Viv" so special back then, but Will said it perfectly during the reunion:  “She was dark skinned, beautiful and talented...there was nothing like her on TV."

Banks sisters Hilary (Karyn Parsons) and Ashley (Tatyana Ali) were Black girls who lived in luxury realness, and who could be mad about that? We witnessed young women who grew up in a two-parent household with powerful, intelligent and loving parents who adored and spoiled them - and quite honestly, gave them things that we thought were only afforded to white girls. Hilary was the older sister, often portrayed as a materialistic airhead; self absorbed, yet witty, and who would occasionally share an uncharacteristically deep thought. Her 90’s style remains unmatched: looks which ranged from sundresses and cute hats to designer women’s suits. We watched younger sister Ashley grow up on TV; from the spunky kid to the smart and low-key feminist who often rebelled when things didn’t sit right with her.

And she had the best head of hair we’ve ever seen on television! Like, girl was that a silk press or do you got Indian in yo' family?

Both were gorgeous Black women who represented for Black girls, or at least represented characters we dreamt about becoming.

It was like getting a peak of what life would be like if we could live in luxury, too. If we could be adored, too. If we had older brothers and cousins looking out for us, and parents we could run to when we needed anything.

Outside of the primary cast, there were various guest roles and cameos featuring what feels like almost every Black female star or soon-to-be star of that era. Most were on the show as Will's love interests: Tisha Campbell as the "fake hair and nails" girl Will got stuck in a basement with; Vivica A. Fox as the beautiful-yet-possessive date arranged by the erstwhile Jazz (DJ Jazzy Jeff); Queen Latifah had two guest appearances as a shy love interest and as a bossy actress; Garcelle Beauvais played a student at the private school who was way too classy for Will’s corny advances; Kim Fields as a virgin whom Will tricks into a fake marriage; Jasmine Guy as a college freshman from around-the-way who falls for Will so hard that it hurts her academic performance in Viv's class. 

But two of the most prominent female guest stars on the show were Tyra Banks as Will's unrequited love interest Jackie and Nia Long as Will's fiancee Lisa. Jackie was his friend from West Philly who came to California for college. She often challenged him to remember where he came from and called out his doggish ways. Lisa enters the series when Will is finally ready to grow up a little and she challenges him to come correct. Fresh off of early movie successes like Boyz N The Hood and having co-starred with Smith previously in 1992s Made In America, Nia Long would become a television sweetheart of the 90’s and, of course, a major big screen talent in movies like Love Jones and The Best Man.

But the list of breakout female stars on The Fresh Prince... is endless; if it wasn’t for the show, who knows if we would have ever been introduced to names like Elise Neal and the aforementioned Beauvias, some of the best black female talent of the 1990s many of whom would go on to become stars and icons in their own right. The queens of the Fresh Prince of Bel Air deserve all their flowers and their crowns.