We are in an unprecedented time for Black content — whether on TV or the big screen — as creators of color are defying the odds and genres with scintillating stories being digested by millions of eyeballs around the world. But, if we were to throwback to 27 years ago, the choices were far and few when it came to seeing us on screen and not having been added in as an afterthought.
That is what made this week’s HBO Max reunion special with the full cast of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air much needed. Now considered one of the “best shows to ever air on television” when the Fresh Prince first got its start in 1990, there was no Living Single or In The House. Martin didn’t have folx bowled over in laughter until 1992, while the programs that did exist — namely Family Matters, which first ran on ABC in 1989 — was still mired in the standard sitcom tropes.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was really ahead of its time, a point that was inadvertently glossed over when you watch it, despite being a highly enjoyable gathering of the show’s living cast (sans the late, great James Avery). With much of the special devoted to walking viewers through the process of making the show and recognizing its own place in history, the meticulously recreated Bel-Air living room set enabled us to reflect on the impact of Black Excellence before black•ish and The Bernie Mac Show, as well as the legacy of the show overall.
With that said, ESSENCE is excited to share the 7 things we learned from HBO Max’s Fresh Prince of Bel-Air reunion special.
1. NBC Had A Monopoly on Premier Black Sitcoms
In the 1990s, television was changing as hip-hop was infiltrating popular culture. For NBC, which already had success with The Cosby Show and A Different World, Quincy Jones and Benny Medina struck while the iron was hot with The Fresh Prince, which catapulted a young MC from Philly named Will Smith into the stratosphere, and showed that the network was ahead of the curve. With only a few, if any, comparable shows on CBS or ABC, the Peacock stood alone with a bevy of Blackness on its roster at the same time.
2. Fresh Prince Was About Benny Medina, Not Will Smith
The story of a streetwise youth (Will Smith) leaving the rough and tumble blocks of West Philadelphia to the palm tree-laced streets of Bel-Air is not far-fetched when you look back at the life and career of the show’s star. But, in the HBO Max reunion special, you realize that it was really about Benny Medina — who co-created Fresh Prince with Quincy Jones — and his transition from being an at-risk teen from Watts to a successful student living with a wealthy white family in Beverly Hills.
3. Will Smith Admits to Being a Line-Mimicker
Although it was widely reported that Will Smith turned down a scholarship to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), he refuted that saying, “I never applied to college because I wanted to rap.” So, it comes as no surprise that the ultra-smart Smith would admit to mouthing other performers’ dialogue in scenes during the beginning run of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. In the special, you can see him silently repeating the lines of Karyn Parsons (Hilary Banks), Tatyana Ali (Ashley Banks), and Don Cheadle (Ice Tray).
4. James Avery Will Forever Be Missed
The towering force of James Avery, who passed away in 2013 following complications from open heart surgery, was ever-present during the HBO Max reunion special. As noted in a tribute package and by Tatyana Ali, Avery never failed to communicate how important and how responsible they as a cast were to present Black people on TV with dignity. Smith credited Avery with pushing him to earn his title as an actor and the TV family collectively said he gave the show its Black artistic core. James Avery’s impact on the show was a huge example of how trailblazing The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air truly was.
5. Janet Hubert Felt Banished By Will Smith
Janet Hubert-Whitten — the O.G. Aunt Viv — was the obvious elephant in the room full of good times. Her removal from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air created a heated war of words between her and Will Smith for decades, so her presence in the reunion was sobering and highlighted the unique challenges that Black woman (especially darker complexion-ed women) routinely face in Hollywood.
Opening up to Will about her off-camera struggles, Janet shared stories no one — including the cast and crew — knew was happening. From her own pregnancy woes to her being in an abusive marriage, while her husband was also unemployed, Janet’s demeanor on set understandably changed. This was bolstered by her contract being cut as well as her role on the show and her pay.
“Words can kill,” Hubert said to Will Smith, whose mea culpa made the Twitterverse give the “umm” face. “I lost everything. Reputation. Everything. And I understand you were able to move forward, but calling a Black woman difficult in Hollywood, is the kiss of death.” Thankfully, the olive branch of forgiveness was extended between both parties and later, the Two Aunt Vivs (Daphne Maxwell Reid) would meet for the first time, placing a nice bow on the decades long feud.
6. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Was the Hottest Ticket in Hollywood
The main focus of the HBO Max reunion special focused on behind-the-scenes footage with the cast and crew as they went through the weekly production routine before the live taping. “You’d just start following like the Piped Piper,” Karyn Parsons shared in a brief confessional moment. The element of Will Smith’s rap career brought everyone together on for those Friday night live tapings and, as the Grammy Award-winning MC recalled, “would extend to the studio audience who came to the taping like they were going to a club.”
As the cast recreated in the closing moments of the reunion, a basket full of musical instruments meant to hype up the crowd would be used to raise the roof for all involved, while Smith himself would turn the TV show into, as Alfonso Ribeiro said, “a show.”
7. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Was Quincy Jones’ Birthday Gift to Will Smith
Will Smith is the first hip-hop star to ever win a Grammy, so that distinction would immediately place him on someone like Quincy Jone’s radar. The Fresh Prince regaled us and his castmates with a never-before-told story of how even he had to audition for the role despite being the show’s namesake.
“Quincy basically steamrolled me through the whole process without ever really auditioning me,” Smith shared. “The only kind of audition I had was Quincy’s birthday, the show was an idea.” At Quincy’s house, Benny Medina and all the executives who could green light the show were in the room.
Pressured by the 70-plus-time Grammy Award-winning savant, Smith was ready to make his acting debut in two weeks. “Everybody that needs to say yes for this show is sitting in that living room right now waiting for you,” Smith recalled Quincy telling him. “Give me 10 minutes,” was his response and the rest — as they say in Hollywood — was history. “They did a deal memo that night. That’s how we got to the pilot that fast.”
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Reunion Special is available now for streaming on HBO Max.