U.S. Intellectual History Blog

“The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and 1990s Cultural Dialogue

On New Year’s Day, many older fans of television were saddened to learn of the passing of James Avery. The African American actor was best known for his role as Philip Banks in the hit 1990s sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. With his passing, people all over the internet began to talk about their love for the television show, which became a vehicle for Will Smith in his pursuit of greater fame. However, many zeroed in on their respect and admiration for the character that Avery played in the series. Philip Banks was a tough, no-nonsense judge in California who, married to Vivian Banks and raising several children, was an example of an African American man who lived out his own version of the American Dream.[1] What I’d like to do in this short post is think about the ways in which The Fresh Prince portrayed the Banks family and their relationship to larger trends about Black politics and Black intellectual thought in the early 1990s.

An emphasis of the show was the fact that the Banks family (or at the very least Philip Banks and his son, Carlton) were Republicans. Looking back on the series, it was often Carlton who was the more partisan of the two, often emphasizing the importance of free market economics as an example of his conservative credentials. Philip Banks, on the other hand, only occasionally referred to himself as a Republican. When confronted with the issue of race early in the series (Will and Carlton are arrested for, essentially, driving a nice car) Philip Banks has to show his power as a judge to get the two out of jail. More importantly, however, the episode becomes a moment where Carlton is forced to confront the issue of race and the law in a visceral way.

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air also fed into a larger television narrative of the early 1990s: the popular culture creation of memory of the 1960s. Shows like Family Ties already took on this narrative, with the political division in the Keaton family providing a place to showcase the national move from 60s liberalism to 80s conservatism. In one particular episode of Family Ties, the patriarch of the family Steven Keaton is confronted by an old friend of his who, unlike Keaton, is still living the 60s radical lifestyle. Likewise, Philip Banks is confronted by an old friend who is still a 60s-era Black radical activist (and, it’s revealed in the episode, still on the run from the FBI). The episode, titled “Those Were the Days”, highlights Philip and Vivian Banks own 1960s era activism. But, where their friends remain “in the struggle”, Philip and Vivian have pursued their own path in making a difference for the fellow citizens.

The climax of the episode was a meditation on where African American activism and participation in the public sphere evolved after the end of the Civil Rights Movement and the collapse of Black Power radicalism. Philip told his friend that he was still the same Philip Banks, but pursuing equality for African Americans through the system, as opposed to trying to overturn it. In light of considerations of how national memory can be constructed via mass media, it’s important to note this particular episode and the narrative it provided about the 1960s and Black America. Where once activism meant marching in the streets, and being “Black and proud” meant certain hairstyles and fashions, The Fresh Prince reminded viewers that many of those same activists, like their counterparts in the anti-war movement or amongst hippies, came to pursue “regular” lives safely within the mainstream.

Lastly, it’s important to note that, while Philip identified as a Republican during the show, he ran as a Democrat in the one Superior Court judge race he participated in. Running against his mentor (portrayed by The Jeffersons star Sherman Hemsley), his choice to run as a Democrat is nothing more than political necessity. Still, the portrayal of an African American family, wealthy and well-off, as Republican in designation was an interesting commentary on discussions of race in America in the early 1990s. With Black conservatives such as Clarence Thomas and Shelby Steele coming to the fore during this era, the importance of having such an ideology portrayed on television was important. While the ideology was sometimes used more for comic relief (especially when it came to Carlton Banks), the continued importance of “up by your bootstraps” Black conservatism was an element in the makeup of the patriarch of the Banks family. Also, thinking about sitcoms in the early 1990s is an important window to how the intellectual debates about race, gender, and American memory were playing themselves out in the public sphere of television and comedy. There were a variety of television shows (Cosby Show, A Different World come to mind) portraying African Americans in a variety of situations. While A Different World was far more explicitly political than The Cosby Show, they along with The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air are all interesting to think about in researching debates about Blackness and American intellectual thought during that era.

[1] It’s important to note, by the way, that Vivian herself was a college professor. In many ways this couple was reminiscent of The Cosby Show in their portrayal of an upstanding, well-to-do African American family.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Apparently I am an one of those “older fans of television,” because I remember one episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air in which Will was, for reasons I do not recall, alleging that his uncle was insufficiently radical. Phil responded with a level of personal umbrage and passion that, to me as a casual viewer of the show, seemed atypical for him. Then he noted that Will had previously referenced Malcolm X. (Again I don’t remember the details, but maybe Will has a poster on his wall or something.) And he said something along the lines of “I was a radical back in the day and I saw Malcolm give a speech at one time or other.” Then–this is the part I remember most clearly–he said, “So don’t tell me about Malcolm X unless you’ve heard the brother speak.”

    That line always stuck in my head, because, unfortunately, I thought it was so dumb. Will was not old enough to have seen Malcolm X give a speech, so Phil’s climactic point really said nothing at all about anyone’s political commitment. I thought they were setting up sort of a Family Ties dynamic, but showing how it might play differently in an African American family. I also liked how dramatically the episode was set up so the audience was sympathizing with Will’s characterization of his uncle as some sort of a sellout until Phil put his nephew in his place by reminding Will that he really hasn’t put anything on the line for his own politics. But making this point the particular way that they did squandered what I thought was an interesting dramatic tension, and turned something potentially interesting into more regular sitcom fodder: Will presumably “learned something,” Phil recovered his dignity and his 60s legacy, all the characters were let off the hook, and everything would be the same next week.

  2. You know, I vaguely remember that one too. I’m glad you brought up that moment, because I’m sure there are a few more that are fodder for the topic I’ve opened for discussion today. The “sellout” portrayal of Philip Banks came up several times, including both the incident you mentioned and the one I talked about above when he encountered his old friend who was still on the run from the FBI. More often than not, though, Will often made fun of Carlton in the “sellout” manner.

  3. Mike, I am going to have to ask exactly how that line got stuck in your head — because (at least in that episode) he doesn’t actually say that. To quote:

    “Look at me when I’m talking to you. Let me tell you something, son. I grew up on the streets just like you. I encountered bigotry you could not imagine. Now you have a nice poster of Malcolm X on your wall. I heard the brother speak. I read every word he wrote. Believe me, I KNOW where I come from!”

    “You actually heard Malcolm speak man?”

    “That’s right. So before you criticize somebody, you find out what he’s all about.”

    The scene can be found on YouTube.

    Maybe Phil implies that having heard Malcolm speak gives his position more weight, but mostly he’s simply pointing out that he was Will’s age at a time and in a situation that Will cannot pretend to understand. Not because Will has had it easy his whole life, but because things were simply harder back then — for black people especially.

    Just wanted to point that out. Who knows if you’ll ever see this!

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