Like other 90s Black sitcoms, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air used comedy to make conversations about racism palatable
The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air reboot is going to be dramatic. We assume it’s for an audience that missed all the drama the first time around.
Morgan Cooper’s viral mock trailer, Bel-Air, is the inspiration behind the new series that Deadline reports is being shopped to streamers like Peacock, Netflix and HBO Max. The four-minute clip, which dropped last year, turns the Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air premise into a “serious” saga. Think Ryan Coogler’s Rocky spinoff Creed and we’re on our way.
Will is still a kid from West Philadelphia who gets into trouble with a bunch of guys who are up to no good. And he’s still shipped off to his aunty and uncle’s house in Bel-Air. It’s the same plot with a new vibe. The soundtrack is grave. The characters are more confrontational about class and creed. The new Bel-Air strips away the Fresh Prince’s bubbly demeanour and replaces it with something scrappier in Jerry Madison’s performance.
Cooper’s trailer essentially applies a bold font and all caps to what is already present in the original 90s sitcom.
The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air took Beverly Hills Cop’s premise – how a Black man sticks out in a wealthy white neighbourhood – and mined it for goofy comedy as well as discussions on Black identity in the era of Rodney King and the Million Man March. The show shouted out Malcolm X in its pilot episode and made discrimination, poverty and activism regular talking points.
There are emotional episodes that deal with the lack of opportunities for Black men, the violence within Black communities and the relevant headlines of that time. Remember the episode when Carlton (Alfonso Ribeiro) buys a handgun? Or the episode after the LA riots when the Banks family head to their old neighbourhood in South Central to help clean up the rubble? Or the premiere season episode when police racially profile Will and Carlton for driving a family friend’s Mercedes?
In that episode, the boys make a false confession as a ploy to get out of police custody. It aired on October 1990, in between the trials of the Central Park Five. The young Black boys on trial were sent to prison for the false confessions they made in order to get out of police custody.
The joke in Morgan Cooper’s trailer is that this popular and entertaining series actually deals with real drama. Will Smith embraced that trailer and is taking it literally by producing the “dramatic “ Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air reboot with Morgan Cooper. They are effectively robbing the mock trailer of its joke with this humourless enterprise.
It fell on Black sitcoms like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Family Matters or Cosby Show spinoff A Different World to couch conversations around race in comedy, presenting the issues in polite and palatable ways.
There were no dramatic alternatives in the early 90s. We had no Black answer to 90210, Melrose Place, Dawson’s Creek or 7th Heaven. There was nothing like Queen Sugar, Power, All American, Empire, Greenleaf and The Chi.
Even in Canada, before we had Diggstown, we had to settle for the rare Degrassi episode that dealt with racism.
Rebooting The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air doesn’t feel purposeless at a moment when Black dramas are more readily embraced. The issues raised in the series haven’t gone anywhere. And perhaps the popularity of Morgan Cooper’s trailer is indicative that everything needs to be spelled out in all caps with a grave soundtrack and intense performances.
It’s not like we can say with any certainty that the issues were taken seriously the first time around.