TV Critic Sherif Hassan fondly remembers this 1990s masterpiece, and reflects on the show’s poignant messages about racial issues as Black History Month is underway
The first episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air aired back in May 1990, focusing on a wealthy black family taking in their trouble-making teenage cousin. Since then, the world has smiled at a countless number of Will Smith’s cheesy pick-up lines, laughed at Alfonso Ribeiro’s legendary dancing and soaked in the late James Avery’s many words of wisdom. With the classic sitcom turning 30 this year, it is time to reflect on the show and remember some of its finest moments.
Although most people’s memory of the Fresh Prince is rooted in its comical scenarios and characters, we must not forget that the sitcom also occasionally dealt with some serious subject matter. Chief amongst these heavy topics was the issue of racial inequality. With Black History Month well under way, it is only natural that we take a closer look at one of the show’s most poignant commentaries on race. Episode 17 of the very first season, titled ‘The Ethnic Trip,’ explores the lack of racial inclusion within western educational institutions. This episode in particular makes clear that the show’s impactful arguments that are just as relevant today as they were 30 years ago.
The Ethnic Trip begins with Uncle Phil (James Avery) and Aunt Vivian’s (Janet Hubert-Whitten) disappointment at Will’s poor grades in History class. Will’s response essentially cements the theme of the episode: he complains that his poor results are due to his school, Bel Air Prep, failing to teach any Black History. ‘They don’t teach the whole story,’ Will argues, which prompts Vivian to take a temporary role as Will and Carlton’s (Alfonso Ribeiro) new History teacher. With Vivian now at the helm, Will’s class learns about Black History for the first time, which sparks a wider discussion about race and education.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of The Ethnic Trip is its undiluted applicability to the racial struggles of today. One often gets the feeling that many racial injustices occur due to a lack of proper education on such matters. In this episode, the Fresh Prince writers seemed keen to emphasise this point. Will complains to his original teacher that they frequently ‘learn about George Washington and Thomas Jefferson,’ yet nothing is taught of Martin Luther King ‘and all the other Black people that made a difference.’ This is a problem which persists to the present day, not only in the USA, but also in private and public schools across the UK.
If the message of The Ethnic Trip had not already become apparent by the end, Vivian’s last line makes it abundantly clear. When she senses that Will is not too enthusiastic about her teaching, she tells him that ‘you can wear the T-shirts, put up the posters and shout the slogans, but unless you learn all the history behind it, you’re trivialising the entire struggle.’ Essentially, the Fresh Prince writers preach the important role of education in the long battle for racial equality. It is not enough to show token support; understanding the history behind the movements is one of the most positive steps a person can take.
This episode, among so many others, shows just how thought-provoking The Fresh Prince of Bel Air can be. It demonstrates the writers’ excellent ability to deal with sensitive subject matter (and the fact that their outlook is just as relevant today is a testament to this). Combine this with the fact that the sitcom recently turned 30, and there is plenty of reason to go back and watch this 90s gem.