On September 10, 1990, we were introduced to a young man from West Philadelphia where he was born and raised. He spent most of his days on the playground where he would be chillin’ out and relaxin’. When he was shooting basketball outside of his school, he was confronted by some guys in his neighborhood who were up to no good. He got into a fight and his mom did not like this at all so he sent him to live with his auntie and uncle in Bel-Air. This is when Will Smith became the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
Fast forward 30 years later and we are reliving an era in TV history with a reunion of the cast on HBO Max — which Smith announced will be dropping on the streamer earlier than expected at 5 p.m. PT today.
Smith, who at the time was best known as the rapper Fresh Prince alongside his partner in crime DJ Jazzy Jeff, starred in the NBC sitcom that ran for six seasons and was a launchpad to Smith’s global stardom. More than that, the show, which also starred Will Smith (Will), Tatyana Ali (Ashley), Karyn Parsons (Hilary), Joseph Marcell (Geoffrey), Daphne Maxwell Reid (Aunt Vivian 2), Alfonso Ribeiro (Carlton), Janet Hubert (Aunt Vivian 1) and the late, great James Avery (Uncle Phil) was a pop culture staple that blazed the trail for representation of the Black experience. And thanks to HBO Max, the series has found a new generation of viewers.
That said, when the reunion was announced, people who grew up with the show in their formative years were filled with excitement. Beyond its comedy, there was something about this show that meant so much to so many people.
There is a moment of genuine joy, laughter and love when the cast stepped onto the re-created set of the Banks family living room. Seeing all of them hug will bring back feelings of nostalgia for this sitcom, which, in retrospect, changed the game when it came to the representation of the Black experience on TV.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air reunion is certainly a journey of emotions that includes laughter, sadness, frustration and ultimately love. So if you are going to watch and you grew up with the show, grab those tissues.
As the cast sat down they reminisced about the pilot and they talked about their auditions, showing footage of Ribeiro and Parsons’ auditions. We also learned that Smith basically landed the role with no acting experience thanks to Quincy Jones. He eventually took acting classes but would learn everyone’s lines so that his game was on-point when they started filming. In fact, there are some episodes you can see Smith mouthing the lines of his scene partner.
Rewatching Fresh Prince of the Bel-Air on HBO Max is great but at the same time, there’s a realization that this show gave us something different. The premise is very much a traditional fish-out-of-water story about a nephew coming to comedically disrupt the lives of his wealthy relatives. It’s a familiar story, but Fresh Prince managed to subvert a lot of the Black tropes and stereotypes that became commonplace on network TV. This was because the actors had the opportunity to collaborate with the writers. They were able to find the soul and truth of the moments with the characters.
“The idea that we, as a Black show on TV — one of three at the time — they weren’t really ‘us’ in the writers’ room,” said Ribeiro in the special. “As an actor, you never had a voice in the room. You were a puppet that was told what to do.”
He added, “We were able to share the experience — the real experience — and gave those writers our perspective.”
“There would be very powerful ideas under the jokes and the comedy,” Smith said. “It’s relevant today as it was 30 years ago, unfortunately.” This was in reference to many topics including the episode where Will is reunited with his estranged father as well as an early episode when Will and Carlton are pulled over by the cops and the two have very different perspectives of police enforcement.
“We made sure we were authentic every episode,” said Ribiero.
“I have spent a career being on shows that showed the variety of the Black culture — showing that we are not just a monolithic group of people with one idea and one lifestyle,” Reid said. “When I got here, we got the freedom to express to the writers the cultural aspects they had in the written word.”
The special also included a very emotional tribute to Avery, who died in 2013. He played the patriarch of the Banks family, Uncle Phil — who knew how to take a joke and fire back with ease. He was a strict father but also knew how to have fun. Based on the praises sung by the cast, Uncle Phil wasn’t too far from the real James Avery.
As the cast shared their experiences, they played a very moving tribute to Avery which left everyone in tears — and it will be sure to leave you in a puddle of tears as well.
One of the main segments of the show that many will be itching to see is the meeting between Smith and the original Aunt Vivian played by Hubert — and it is a good meeting that will take you on a whole other journey.
Hubert exited Fresh Prince of Bel-Air after three seasons and was replaced by Reid. As a result, there was a very public feud between Smith and Hubert that continued for almost 30 years.
“For me, it felt like I couldn’t celebrate 30 years of Fresh Prince without finding a way to celebrate Janet,” said Smith.
But what would this reunion be like? Will be more of a catty Real Housewives reunion? Or more of an Oprah Winfrey Show moment? Luckily, it was the latter.
“Been a long time,” Hubert greeted Smith as they met one-one on the set.
Hubert was the “OG Aunt Vivian”. She said she never saw anyone that looked like her that played a role like Aunt Viv. A dark-skinned Black woman who was regal, a good mother, role model, professional and as Hubert put it, could throw down. Hollywood never looked to an actress like Hubert to fill that type of role so in that sense, Hubert was a trailblazer. She was definitely a favorite when the series launched. She could act, sing and dance (remember that iconic dance she did to C+C Music Factory’s “Everybody Dance Now”?) But then after season 3, she left, disrupting the show and this special was an opportunity for the two to hash things out.
“This has been tough,” Hubert told Smith at the start of this very candid conversation. “I just wanted to know one thing: why did you guys go so far? I lost so much.”
Smith responded that he didn’t know her story.
“You have no idea,” she said. Hubert went on to clarify that during the third season when she got pregnant, there was a lot going on in her life and in Smith’s life which caused the friction between the two. “I was no longer laughing, joking smiling because there were things going on that nobody knew about.”
Smith admits that during her pregnancy that he wasn’t sensitive to Hubert, but now that he has matured he wishes he would have done things differently. “I can see where I made the set very difficult for Janet,” he said.
Hubert said they offered her a bad deal in the third season and she didn’t accept the offer and they recast her role. Hubert conceded, but was hurt deeply. When she left the show, Hubert’s personal life and professional life started to crumble. Her family disowned her and Hollywood shut her out. She said she wasn’t unprofessional on set, she just didn’t talk to anybody because she didn’t know who to trust.
“I was banished…they said it was you who banished me,” she told Smith.
At 21 years old, Smith said he just felt threatened by the world which in turn, spoke to his behavior towards Hubert. He recognizes now the pain and struggles Hubert had to go through to show up to work every day.
“You took all that away from me with your words,” Hubert stated. “Words can kill. I lost everything… and I understand you were able to move forward but you know those words — calling a Black woman difficult in Hollywood is the kiss of death. It’s hard enough being a dark-skinned Black woman in this business.”
“I felt it was necessary for us to move forward,” she added as tears welled up in her eyes. “I’m sorry I blasted you to pieces.”
Smith thanked Hubert and for having her in her life. “The person I want to be is someone who protects you not someone who unleashes dogs on you,” he said.
They squashed their 27-year feud by exchanging sorrys — and Hubert walked on the set to greet her TV family. She also Reid for the first time (can you believe that they never met before?!).
“Seeing Daphne and Janet meet for the first time and embrace was the most incredible thing,” said Parsons.
It was pretty much the same for everyone else who grew up with this show.
As the special came to a close, Ross Bagley who played Nicky, the youngest of the Banks children, made an appearance and the cast shed more tears as they talked about filming the final episode which aired May 20, 1996. Surprisingly, there was no mention of HBO Max’s dramatic reboot of the series during the reunion.
Even though tears flowed a plenty, they ended with a celebration. Smith, accompanied by Jazzy Jeff sang the all-too-familiar theme song as the cast danced along.
As the special ended Smith said, “See you in 10 years” to his castmates.
A Fresh Prince of Bel-Air 40-year anniversary special? We’ll be waiting.