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Blood Is Thicker than Mud: C-Note Goes to Compton on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air
In the 1980s much was made of the The Cosby Show's challenge to black "authenticity." With its doctor-lawyer parents and college-bound kids, Cosby was a controversial attempt to uncouple blackness and poverty. But what most cultural theorists failed to note was the ongoing nature of this representational struggle, which reached new heights with the 1990 debut of The Fresh Prince of Bet Air.
Although sold as a lighthearted, "fish-out-of-water" tale (a combination of The Beverly Hillbillies and Diff'rent Strokes), the ideological tensions underlying this sitcom were far from frivolous. Rather, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air was a collective autobiographical narrative about the traumas of integration in a post-civil-rights era. Not only did it take the black upper class for granted, as had Cosby, but it also wrestled, frequently and openly, with economic and cultural mobility.
The show's premise revolved around an inner-city teen who was forced to relocate to the wealthy, predominately white community of Bel Air, California. The opening credit sequence sets the stage, as actor Will Smith (formerly the real-life rapper known as the "Fresh Prince") is shown on a basketball court in his "rough" Philadelphia neighborhood. When his character, also called Will, accidentally hits a local hoodlum with the basketball, there is a comic allusion to violence, followed by a quick flight out to California. As the show's themesong goes: "This is a story all about how my life turned twisted upside down / I got in one little fight and my mom got scared / She said, `You're moving [in] with your auntie and uncle in Bel Air.'"
Upon arrival at the lavish home of his aunt and uncle, Vivian and Philip Banks (Vivian was played by both Janet Hubert-Whit- ten and Daphne Maxwell Reid; James Avery was Philip), Will also finds his three upper-crust cousins: Hilary (Karyn Parsons), a self-absorbed shopaholic; Carlton (Alfonso Ribeiro), the family nerd; and young Ashley (Tatyana M. Ali), whom Will eventually teaches to rap and dance. Rounding out the cast is Geoffrey (Joseph Marcell), the family's British-accented butler.
Based on the real-life experiences of show producer Benny Medina, The Fresh Prince is a clear example of collective autobiography. Like Will Smith's character, Medina also found himself on the edge of lawlessness during his teenage years. In and out of foster homes and detention centers throughout Watts and south Los Angeles, Medina was eventually taken in by a wealthy Westside couple: television composer Jack Elliott and his wife, Bobbi Elliott. At Beverly Hills High, Medina befriended the sons of then Motown president Berry Gordy, and eventually went on to become a Warner Brothers music executive himself.
Medina first discussed the concept for The Fresh Prince with Will Smith informally, at a taping of The Arsenio Hall Show. Not long after a pitch meeting with music producer Quincy Jones and Kevin Wendle, then president of Quincy Jones Entertainment, Jones put in a call to NBC executive Brandon Tartikoff. Eventually the idea was was given a "green light."
Perhaps Medina's story resonated with Jones because both men had experienced a similar sense of racial and cultural displacement. Born on Chicago's South Side, Jones had also lived in a segregated African American community as a boy before moving to Seattle, Washington. As a young pianist and trumpeter, Jones later won a scholarship to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he experienced yet another cultural dislocation. When a heart condition prevented him from pursuing a career as a trumpeter, Jones became vice president of Mercury Records, one of the first black executives to achieve such a rank in a white music corporation. In his personal life, Jones married three times, to three white women, and fathered six biracial children.
I include such intimate details because they're important to understanding the politics of black television. It wasn't long ago, after all, that men like Jones were strung from trees for having interracial affairs, fathering haft-white babies, or aspiring to own businesses. In fact, both Jones and Medina belonged to a relatively new social formation.
The Fresh Prince revealed the ironies of such shifting caste positionalities. More than once Jones himself expressed concern for what he called "black-on-black prejudice" among "haves and have-nots." It was an issue that Jones, Medina, and Smith all agreed to address on their show. In vowing to examine such intraracial-dynamics, they successfully wrestled with collective African American memories and desires. And yet it is important to recall, as J. Fred MacDonald notes, that 93 percent of black shows (apart from The Cosby Show and A Different World) were still run by white producers in the late 1980s. The Fresh Prince was no exception.
Because neither Medina nor Jones had experience running a television series, NBC was not initially willing to entrust them with its investment. Instead, the network brought in Andy and Susan Borowitz, a white, Harvard-educated writing team, to oversee production. As the show proved successful, however, and tensions grew between the Borowitzes and other members of the creative team, NBC agreed to give Medina and Jones more power. By the end of the first season the Borowitzes had resigned under "not-so-friendly circumstances" and were soon replaced by Winifred Hervey Stallworth, a former writer and producer on The Cosby Show.
From Benny Medina's perspective, the Borowitzes had been more interested in "jokes" (or what Esquire once referred to as their "street shtick," formerly seen on shows such as Webster) than believable depictions of black life. Quincy Jones thought their writing "contrived and wrong." And Will Smith confessed to journalists that he often provided behind-the-scenes cultural tutoring for the couple. When the Banks children were to behave disrespectfully, for example, Smith suggested to the Borowitzes that generally speaking black kids, unlike white kids, "absolutely do not ... raise their voice in the presence of their parents." But as Smith acknowledged, these white writers "didn't quite understand that concept."
Indeed, Susan Borowitz admitted that she listened to rap music for the first time as something of "a homework assignment" for working on the show. The Borowitzes also received "a crash course" from Smith, she said, in hip-hop terms like fly and dope. After all, as Andy Borowitz later conceded, black sitcom writing is largely "guesswork" done by whites. "You have eight white writers in a room with one black trainee," he explained, "and they ask him: "Do blacks still say def a lot?"
Of course, collective black autobiography found its way into story lines despite the Borowitzes' leadership, as male characters, in particular, engaged in ongoing struggles to redefine racial authenticity. In the premiere episode, for example, Will is constructed as working-class, boisterous, and uncouth. He is also seen as hip and culturally "authentic." After stapling a Malcolm X poster to his bedroom wall, he shows up for a formal business dinner with a tuxedo cummerbund wrapped across his bare chest, much to the dismay of his uncle, a prestigious attorney who is entertaining business associates.
The episode is intriguing in that it challenges the very notion of black "authenticity,"--that is, the myth that one's cultural heritage can be simplistically determined by fashion, income, or lifestyle. While Will is shocked to learn that his bourgeois uncle had been politically active during the 1960s (and had even heard Malcolm X speak in person), Philip Banks is stunned to discover that his "ghettoish" nephew plays classical piano.
Similar revelations occur between Will and Geoffrey, the butler (whose love of opera and fine art construct him as less "black" than Will). The most interesting of these exchanges, however, involve Will's straightlaced cousin, Carlton. In the remainder of this chapter I focus on two episodes: one in which the cousins are pitted against each other, and another in which they defend their shared allegiances and blood ties.
In the first episode, written by Rob Edwards, Will and Jazz (played by Smith's former rap partner, Jeff Townes, or "D.J. Jazzy Jeff") overhear Carlton's glee club rehearsing. In one of the series' most clever scenes ever, the prim, all-white quintet delivers--under Carlton's direction--a studied rendition of the Commodores' classic funk jam "Brick House," complete with well-rounded vowels and exaggerated enunciation. "If the Commodores heard you singing that," cracks Will, "they'd tie you down to the tracks and run you over with the Soul Train." From there, the exchange goes straight from a clever banter about soul, funk, and the ability to groove to the heart of the matter:. Carlton's lack of blackness.
"Just because I grew up in the best neighborhood and pronounce the i-n-g's at the end of my words doesn't make me any less black than you," quips Carlton. "Naw. It's that tie that does it," retorts Jazz for the punchline. The end result of this toast is a bet: Will and Jazz wager that Carlton can't last two days in Compton, Jazz's neighborhood.
This episode is especially fascinating for its intertextuality; that is, the way it brings together fictional, presentational, and documentary representations. By constructing Will and Jazz as authentic "niggahs," the narrative becomes richly complicated for in-group viewers--particularly for those who realize that Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince never occupied such a space as rappen. On the contrary, their music was regarded as mainstream pop. Even Susan Borowitz acknowledged that "hardcore" hip-hop fans might resent the show's "cuddly" packaging of rap.
So while references to Compton--with its connotations of gangsta rap and groups like N.W.A. ("Niggahs With Attitude")--work to transfer images of "realness" to Will and Jazz, such images are actually diametrically opposed, if not hostile, to the pop personas of the Fresh Prince and Jazzy Jeff. Taking such intertextual dynamics a step further, the text becomes even more intriguing: Former N.W.A. member Dr. Dre was said to have financed his Death Row Records with profits from Vanilla Ice, the infamous white rapper who claimed to have a criminal record and black family ties in order to appear more "authentic." My point is that the text itself explodes any easy definitions of "real" blackness.
Meanwhile, Carlton surprises Will by not only surviving but thriving in the 'hood. When Will arrives at Jazz's Compton apartment, he expects to find his usual nerdy cousin. Instead he is greeted by "C-note," who--in a brilliant turn by actor Alfonso Ribeiro--successfully mimics, performs, and constructs "blackness." Whereas Carlton carried himself with straight-A posture, C-Note moves casually, with rounded shoulders and a suddenly broad, muscular back--donning dark sunglasses and a gangsta-like bandanna. Having studied "hip-hop flashcards," he now speaks the language of "the streets."
"Carlton, what's wrong with you?" cries Will. "Yo, Prince," replies C-Note, oddly invoking the rapper's real-life stage name. "How you gonna play me?" The moment is extraordinary, a classic--unfortunately, it is interrupted too soon by Vivian Banks, who has rushed across town to rescue her "baby," Carlton, from the dangers of Compton.
Barging into Jazz's apartment and scolding the boys for not keeping a tidier home, Vivian Banks orders her son to return home. Her insertion here is disappointing in two ways. One, it forecloses the scene's potential for redefining "blackness" by returning Carlton to a "proper" identity (i.e., educated and rich, and therefore not black). And two, it avoids what could have been a rare exploration of acculturation and black femaleness.
Instead, story lines involving Vivian, Hilary, and Ashley generally cling to stereotypically "feminine" concerns, such as shopping, dating, marriage, pregnancy, child rearing, aging, and beauty. In fact, I was unable to find a single episode, in six seasons, in which women characters were central to dramatic confrontations around racial identity, gender, or class.
Quincy Jones may have inadvertently shed light on this gap in a 1995 Los Angeles Times interview. "I always worried about my son having first-generation money," he confessed. (Jones is also the father of five daughters.) "I think it's important for a male child to understand what the street's about, because the sensibility of the world is really driven by the street.... It's OK for your daughters not to experience that, but for a boy, I think you can set him back by not letting him have that part of his life."
Again, autobiography is crucial here. According to Benny Medina, the character of Hilary is based on a wealthy black Beverly Hills woman he knew as a teenager, a woman who, as Medina recalls, didn't approve of his friendship with her sons. "She didn't marry a doctor and move to Beverly Hills so her children would hang around with little black kids," he noted.
Unfortunately, such constructions of black women trivialize issues of gender, color, and caste. As bell hooks notes in a different context, the implication is that black women are predisposed to a certain mindless acculturation, whereas the men around them somehow manage "to question, reflect upon, and ... [even] resist such processes." It is especially ironic that women's experiences are so consistently silenced in black television, given that black female viewers outnumber black males by far.
While writer-producers such as Yvette Lee Bowser, Winifred Hervey Staffworth, and Debbie Allen have also used the medium autobiographically, they have only rarely focused on "womanist" issues. The NBC sitcom In the House, for example, was created by Stallworth in 1995, following her tenure at The Fresh Prince. The show starred Debbie Allen as a middle-aged woman facing divorce, alimony struggles, and the problem of finding employment. Although Stallworth had herself experienced a divorce, her show did not venture into dramatic explorations of class or gender. It seems that this terrain remained reserved for men.
Three years after Carlton's Compton bet, a strikingly similar episode of The Fresh Prince aired. It opens on campus at a fictional Los Angeles University, where new students Will and Carlton are seen checking out information booths during fraternity rush week. Predictably, Carlton gravitates toward a table hosted by white members, who greet him with the following: "We're Delta Gamma Nu, our blood is very blue, our money's old, our cards are gold, and who the heck are you?"
Next, black fraternity members enter, performing a traditional "step" routine, complete with rhythmic stomping and clapping. Following rousing applause from the studio audience and cast (even director Chuck Vinson was surprised by the power of this scene), the punch line is delivered by a bewildered Carlton, who returns to the stodgy Delta Gamma Nus and asks: "Can I hear yours again?"
Following a commercial break, however, Carlton and Will agree to rush the black fraternity, Phi Beta Gamma, where the running joke soon becomes Carlton's "white" lifestyle. While Carlton's lack of "blackness" is again under attack in this episode, the site of struggle has shifted. This time, it's Top Dog, the fraternity pledge leader, who challenges Carlton's authenticity, while Will, surprisingly, comes to his cousin's defense.
The pivotal confrontation occurs at the Phi Beta Gamma pledge party, when Will learns that he has been accepted but Carlton has not. As Will and Top Dog face off, their profiles are framed interestingly by director Vinson. Behind them, a dreadlocked, brown-skinned brothah dances in a cool, meditative manner. In contrast, we see Carlton moving with spastic, exaggerated motions.
Against these images Top Dog explains that Carlton's Ralph Lauren shirts, wing-tip shoes, and corporate look do not exemplify what he thinks a Phi Beta Gamma should be. "We don't need a brother like him in this fraternity," he tells Will. (Also in the background, another dreadlocked fraternity member chats with two light-skinned women. Again, female characters are situated primarily as ornamental objects here, rather than complex characters with their own histories and subjectivities. In this scene, female partygoers are almost universally light-skinned and/or with long, blond hair.)
The episode takes its unusual dramatic turn when Carlton learns that he has been dubbed "not enough of a brothah to be a brothah." Suddenly the music stops and all eyes are on him. "But I did everything," he protests. "I cooked, I cleaned, I hand-washed your toilets." "Yeah," replies Top Dog bitterly. "Everything your butler does for you! I'm not accepting no prep-school, Bel Air-bred sell-out into my fraternity."
But Carlton, the man who once studied hip-hop flashcards to prove his "blackness," is not yet ready to give up. "You think I'm a sell-out. Why? Because I live in a big house, or I dress a certain way? ... Being black isn't what I'm trying to be. It's what I am. I'm running the same race and jumping the same hurdles you are, so why are you tripping me up? You said we need to stick together, but you don't even know what that means. If you ask me, you're the real sell-out."
Carlton's dramatic speech is followed by energetic applause from audience members, and unlike the 1990 episode in which he is forcibly returned home by his mother, the cousins now retreat of their own accord, returning to the safety of their unified household, as the episode's title tells us, borrowing from Sly and the Family Stone's 1970s hit, "blood is thicker than mud."
Upon hearing of Carlton's rejection, Philip Banks reacts with yet another, unusually dramatic scene. "This really irritates me," he begins, pacing the floor of his living room. "I've worked very hard to give my family a good life, and suddenly somebody tells me there's a penalty for success.... When are we gonna stop doing this to each other?" Two dramatic beats are followed by motionless shots of the entire family and finally the credits, rolled in silence.
This episode illustrates clearly the shift in Will and Carlton's relationship and, by extension, in the show's overall ideological stance. As Will moves away from narrow notions of "authenticity," viewers are also encouraged to entertain the possibility that "blackness" is not fixed but fluid.
At the conclusion of the show's first season, following Andy and Susan Borowitz's departure, African American writer and producer Stallworth came on board, vowing that she would make the characters "more real." In the end, however, the series was exactly what NBC hoped it would be: a mass-appeal comedy in which Will Smith "charms, disarms, and alarms [viewers] with his streetwise ways." As Mim Udovitch noted in The Village Voice, "Everything that made [Smith] seem like a lightweight, middle-class exercise as a rapper [also enjoyed] a favorable exchange rate in the currency of situation comedy." This was a network, after all, that was "quite taken aback" when Smith's character hung an image of Malcolm X on the wall.
Despite increasing degrees of black control and authorship, then, in-group issues were only rarely addressed in a dramatic manner. And yet The Fresh Prince provided a striking indication of what was to come. The "freshest" thing about it, noted Medina at the conclusion of the show's run, was that it made explicit the "widening gap between the classes of African Americans." Similar in-group dialogues would later emerge on black productions at Fox. That these shows made it to the air at all represented a veritable revolution for network television.
|Pt. 1||Color and Caste|
|1||Blood Is Thicker than Mud: C-Note Goes to Compton on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air||15|
|2||High Yella Bananas and Hair Weaves: The Sinbad Show||25|
|3||Ralph Farquhar's South Central and Pearl's Place to Play: Why They Failed Before Moesha Hit||36|
|Pt. 2||Gender and Sexuality|
|4||Sheneneh, Gender-Fuck, and Romance: Martin's Thin Line Between Love and Hate||53|
|5||Living Single and the "Fight for Mr. Right": Latifah Don't Play||65|
|Pt. 3||Social Movement|
|6||Under the Sign of Malcolm: Memory, Feminism, and Political Activism on Roc||77|
|7||Boricua Power in the Boogie-Down Bronx: Puerto Rican Nationalism on New York Undercover||88|