A prime example of a classic 90’s American sitcom, centred around the comedic and charming bravado and banter-full antics of one infamous Will Smith, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air brought much more than just laughs and top class entertainment to viewers across the US (and later the wider world). There were many times Fresh Prince got very real, addressing serious topical societal issues and teaching important valuable lessons.
For those of you who may not have seen Fresh Prince (disappointing) or are not even aware of the very famous theme song (just shocking to be honest), here’s a little bit of background and setting: Will Smith, a very street-smart kid, comes from a working-class background in Philadelphia where he lives with his mum. He gets into a fight with some guys from the ‘hood who were causing trouble. This upsets his mother, and makes her very anxious about his future, so she decides to send him away to stay with his aunt and uncle in the town of Bel Air, Los Angeles. Will’s working class background ends up clashing in various humorous ways with the upper class “bourgeois” world of the Banks family – Will’s uncle Phil & aunt Vivian and their children, Will’s cousins, Hilary, Carlton, and Ashley.
The first few “issue addressing” episodes tampered mainly with incidents of racial discrimination and class prejudice; we see the Banks family being exposed to racial discrimination and subject to incidents of racial intolerance. It wasn’t long before Fresh Prince began to delve further into societal problems that were relevant then and are still relevant today as issues like sexism, drug and alcohol abuse, and gun violence all came to the fore in one way or another throughout the seasons.
In the episode “Mistaken Identity”, we see an issue of racial discrimination and racial profiling being dealt with. Will and Carlton are pulled over and arrested while driving Uncle Phil’s business associate’s fancy car. Carlton, having grown up without first-hand experience of racial profiling, struggled to come to terms with his race being the impetus for the officer’s suspicion. He says that the cops were just “doing their jobs,” but Will and Uncle Phil know what was really the incentive. At the end of the episode Carlton asks his Dad “Dad, if you were a policeman, and you saw a car driving at two miles an hour, wouldn’t you stop it?” His father’s reply is a profound and eye opening one; “I asked myself that question the first time I was stopped. Good night, son.” Carlton is left to ponder this alone, and we hear him say “I would stop it,” which really drives him in his difficulty to comprehend the fact the racial profiling is a thing and something that he will be confronted with and expected to deal with and handle in the future, when he is no longer under the protection and guardianship of his father.
In “Guess Who’s Coming To Marry?” (Season 2, Episode 6) we see this issue of racism being addressed, but in a very interesting way. This episode demonstrates how racial discrimination and prejudice works both ways, as it is Will’s mother who has difficulty in being open to the idea of her sister marrying a white man. Tension builds as Will’s mother, Vy, is openly disapproving and unaccepting of this and she refuses to attend the wedding and forbids Will to. She does, in the end, overcome her prejudiced feelings towards her sister’s fiancé and attends the wedding.
“She Ain’t Heavy” (Season 2, Episode 8) addresses the particularly poignant issue of body image, which is especially relevant in our society today. Will hits it off with a good close friend named Dee-Dee, but her size keeps him from asking her to the dance. Though they both have a lot in common as soon as his friends start teasing him he takes the shallow way out. This confronts the tendency that many of us fall victim to from time to time; the tendency to judge things and/or people based on appearances, allowing ourselves to choose aesthetic values over more important internal and meaningful values. Will does put his judgemental inclination aside in the end, however, despite what his friends may say or think. When he sees Dee-Dee at the dance with another guy he reaches out to her, apologising for his behaviour and the two reconcile as good friends.
In “Blood Is Thicker Than Mud” (Season 4, Episode 8) we are presented with an issue of class prejudice that also deals on some level with internal racism. Will and Carlton are given humiliating tasks as part of their initiation into a college fraternity, but the fraternity president has a personal prejudice against Carlton and his rich family (he equates being black with being working class and from the ‘hood). Will is accepted into the fraternity but Carlton is denied membership. The preppy Carlton tells the frat rep that they shouldn’t judge him because of his Bel-Air background. “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?” Asks Carlton. “You said we need to stick together, but you don’t even know what that means.”
“You’ve Got to Be A Football Hero” (Season 4, Episode 12) addresses the issue of alcohol abuse in a very heart wrenching and poignant episode. Will gets very drunk at a party, trying to prove his social status within college life and trying to impress a girl he likes. He participates in a drinking game in competition with the boyfriend of the girl he fancies. He acts foolishly and recklessly when he attempts to drive himself home, and ends up passing out in a cemetery. He hallucinates and is visited by the ghost of a young boy who was killed by a drunk driver;
Will: That’s quite an arm you got on you.
Billy: I know, I was going to play for the Dodgers.
Will: Maybe you will some day… Billy, how did you die?
Billy: I was playing ball in my yard, this car jumped the curve and came at me. The driver was drunk.
“Bullets over Bel Air” (Season 5, Episode 15) deals with the issue of gun violence and the idea of violence-fighting-violence in general, which was an especially prominent issue in the society at the time, particularly within the black community. Will gets shot in an attempt to protect Carlton in a scary ATM robbery. During a hospital visit with Will, Carlton reveals that he has bought a gun so it will never happen again. Will emotionally insists Carlton give him the gun: “I saved your life. You owe me!” Carlton leaves the gun, and Will cries as he removes the bullets from the chamber.
Not only is Fresh Prince absolutely hilarious and just plain brilliant. It’s also provides very good life lessons, and really drives home the importance of addressing and confronting important societal issues in television shows, in the hope that raising awareness will in turn lead to increased attempt in combatting them. J. Cole said it in ‘No Role Modelz’: “First things first rest in peace Uncle Phil / For real, you the only father that I ever knew.” This is a direct reference to Uncle Phil in Fresh Prince, who was Cole’s only father figure growing up. Fact. The actor who played him, James Avery, died on December 31st, 2013, just a year before this song was released. Cole looked up to Uncle Phil, like one would a father, because he didn’t have a real-life male role model. Even if you don’t want to watch Fresh Prince for these reasons, though, do give it a go purely because it is just great. Really. Seriously, just watch it. (J. Cole did, if that isn’t reason enough then…).