Vague Visages’ The Fresh Prince Project review contains minor spoilers. Check out the VV home page for film reviews, along with cast/character summaries, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings.
In the early 90s, NBC executives used imperfect arguments to address the network’s changing pieces. Chris Palmer’s The Fresh Prince Project explains how Will Smith — a comedic rapper from West Philadelphia — fused hip-hop culture with nerd culture while igniting a small screen revolution, via The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990-96), that unlocked industry opportunities for Black performers. The author’s prose flows easy — short statements followed by philosophical musings; a historical anecdote followed by a complementary fact. And a personal thought. And a slick transition. The Fresh Prince Project is indeed an easy read but at times feels instructional when considering the elephant in the room (Smith’s March 2022 meltdown at the Academy Awards). Importantly, though, Palmer’s vast research ensures that readers receive much more than what’s already been covered in HBO Max’s The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Reunion (2020).
The Fresh Prince Project’s best bits arguably pop up in the middle section. Palmer first explains Smith’s unique rise to fame and how network heads, along with white American audiences, didn’t fully understand the nuances of Black culture that weren’t featured on The Cosby Show (1984-1992). The late executive Brandon Tartikoff allowed some wiggle room to Smith when incorporating Philly street lingo; however, ousted showrunner Winifred Hervey refused to produce “issue shows.” Of course, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is now well-known for its game-changing productions that investigate the young protagonists’ complicated relationship with Black culture (including Alfonso Ribeiro as the nerdy yet proud Carlton Banks). As Palmer explains, a relatively inexperienced Black writer like Devon Shepard — who wrote the season 4 episode “Blood Is Thicker Than Mud” — learned some poignant truths about himself by refusing to play it safe at NBC, by refusing to write watered-down tales that wouldn’t frighten white folks. He had no playbook. Smith had no playbook. But they both had differing amounts of power in the writers’ room. In retrospect, one can link Smith’s early 90s power moves at NBC to his 2022 Oscar behavior. No consequences, just applause. Money talks.
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But Palmer doesn’t primarily focus on Smith’s growing ego during the early 90s. He works through the cultural aspects of 80s Philadelphia that affected the entertainer’s outlook (“broke famous” gigs, a friend’s death), along with internal NBC clashes that, on the surface, feel laced with reverse racism and misogyny but were in fact much more that, as Palmer continuously clarifies in The Fresh Prince Project. The aforementioned Hervey left The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air because she challenged Smith’s power and authenticity. The same goes for Janet Hubert, the original Aunt Viv, who left the show after reportedly being pushed out. And so there are layers of sociopolitical theorizing in The Fresh Prince Project, with the author providing the facts and reaching a logical conclusion about each situation. (Note: If you’re a fan of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, don’t miss the bittersweet exchange between Smith and Hubert in the 2020 HBO Max special.)
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There’s something for people of all ages and backgrounds in The Fresh Prince Project. Older readers will appreciate Palmer’s deep dive into the history of Black television sitcoms, while younger folks just might find the most value in the author’s cultural breakdowns. Sadly, there’s not much about “The Carlton Dance” and not a whole lot about the relevance of supporting cast members such as Tyra Banks, yet the author does indeed prop up Smith and his NBC family as the people who undoubtedly remixed America. A star, a star! A kingdom for a star!
The Fresh Prince Project: How the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Remixed America will be available in stores on January 31, 2023 via Atria Books.
Q.V. Hough (@QVHough) is Vague Visages’ founding editor.
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