How ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’ Reached Out to a Generation In Need

by Ricardo A. Reyna

Graphic by Kody Stoebig.

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, for those who don’t know, was a sitcom staple throughout the 1990s, considered by some a “golden era” of black television. But more than any other show, Fresh Prince helped shape how black characters on film and screen are represented.

The sitcom helped create a new black sociocultural movement by allowing its characters to run against the grain of social and cultural prejudices African Americans had for so long been subjected to. It also showed me that there was more to life than what I saw around me. That lessons had to be learned everyday, sometimes the hard way.

Starring actor Will Smith, and loosely based on his own life, Fresh Prince revolved around a streetwise, fatherless teen from Philadelphia who moves in with relatives in the upscale California community of Bel-Air.

Will’s uncle Phil and aunt Vivian, and their children, Hilary, Carlton and Ashley are a family of class and wealth. At a time when most black television characters were either poor, from the streets, considered ghetto, or painted as criminals, the show really broke away from these stereotypical images.

Will constantly questioned his relatives’ lack of “street” cred, the show’s way of subverting the typical way that African Americans had been portrayed in mass media. Fresh Prince gave audiences a glimpse of the change that the American black community was experiencing at this period.

The show ran for six seasons and, although a comedy sitcom, it delved into a lot of personal issues that black families throughout the United States were facing. Topics ranging from school, family values, divorce, police brutality, racism, murder and even rape. The show truly tried to reach out to a younger generation of adults and teenagers; teaching morals and ethics that some may have not been taught in their homes.

It also provided viewers with a strong set of parents: Uncle Phil, a judge, and Aunt Vivian, a college professor, who like all parents wanted more for their children than they had growing up.

Their children were just as dynamic. Hilary, a scatterbrained shopping addict; Carlton, a political-minded conservative teen who wears sports coats and listens to Tom Jones in his off time; and Ashley, a bright young girl who’s just as curious about life as any young pre teen. Together they helped Will realize that life is much bigger than the urban parts of West Philadelphia where he was born and raised.

It’s a lesson I think we all learn at some point in our lives.

Fresh Prince offered an entertaining and optimistic outlook on a lot of situations that occurred throughout the 1990s — many very laughable and joyful, but some very dark. From Will driving home drunk and having a dream where he learns his lesson via ghosts, to the famous line where Will’s friend Jazz — who is being asked to place his hand on the bible in court but refuses to put his hands down — says “No way. Dude’s got a gun, next thing you know I got six warning shots in my back.”

The show, through both the seriousness and humor, inspired people like me to set out for more in life regardless of what label society put on us or what it said we should or shouldn’t do.

Constantly clashing with his family about how he believed they should be reacting to situations, or carrying themselves because they were black, Will demonstrated the diversity between life in the ghetto and life in the suburbs. All while shifting the mindset about how black characters on television had to act or think.

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air can never be duplicated. In fact, Will Smith has said that, despite the rumors, he does not plan to produce a remake.

Which makes sense. The show was a one-of-a-kind. It touched the hearts of many young people at a point in time when things like police brutality, racism and inequality were prevalent, but not as candidly discussed as they are today.

Fresh Prince showed a generation of young people like myself that, no matter where you come from, where you’ve been and who you grew up with or without, there is and always will be opportunity and joy in life if you just work hard, love your friends and family, and trust and believe in yourself.