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The 'Fresh Prince' Reunion Included an Unexpected Moment of Healing

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Janet Hubert is known for her role as Vivian Banks on NBC’s “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” and although she’s not the only actress to play this character, she is the face that comes to mind for so many — whether it be that iconic dance scene, when she became a high school teacher educating everyone about race issues or when in a $5,000 sweater she threatened to beat up a cop to protect her son and nephew. Hubert brought not just sophistication to the role, but she so effortlessly balanced being a kind nurturing mother, a working professional with a doctorate degree educating at the collegiate level and, quite frankly, just a Black woman who wasn’t afraid to be Black and throw down. Her portrayal was nuanced and real.

As a young dark skin Black woman, in Janet Hubert’s portrayal of Vivian Banks, I saw a character and woman I aspired to be. Beautiful, successful, in love and supported by the people around her and unafraid to be vulnerable.

Sadly, that was Vivian Banks and it was not Janet Hubert.

Through the rumor mill, it was said that Janet Hubert was fired from the show, which is why she was replaced with Daphne Reid. Daphne Reid, an actress with a lighter complexion, brought her own style to Aunt Viv’s character that, while different from Hubert, was still great in its own right. Daphne Reid finished out the show to the show’s completion.

On November 18, 2020, HBOMax dropped the Fresh Prince’s 30th Reunion special. All of the performers who portrayed the Banks family, minus the late James Avery, sat down and reminisced about the good, the beautiful, the iconic and the dark skin elephant in the room — Janet Hubert’s departure from the show.

Janet has publicly commented on her anger at Will Smith for years, and when they first sat down you could see the tension. She spoke to what happened to her and in her story I saw my own.

Will Smith sat down with Janet Hubert to clear the air and as a lover of pop culture and drama, I was excited, but I was not expecting the levels of truth and honesty that we saw from not just Will Smith, but largely from Janet Hubert.

She was pregnant in an abusive relationship in the third season of the show. She felt trapped and alone, battling demons no one in the cast knew about. Black women are not afforded the same compassion and leniency when it comes to trauma, triggers or simply bad days. If we are not smiling, laughing and/or being the sassy Black friend that drives laughter in the group, then we are seen as confrontational, angry and in Will Smith’s words “difficult.”

“Calling a Black woman difficult in Hollywood is the kiss of death,” Hubert told Smith in their sit down conversation. She told him how she was going through hell in her personal life and how no one knew. What wasn’t said but what was easily picked up was that no one cared to ask either. They just saw her being standoffish, snippy and from the younger Will Smith’s viewpoint “difficult.”

Anxiety and depression can present itself as anger and irritability. Janet Hubert was never given the benefit of the doubt. They decided it was easier to let her go and replace her then to ask her, “How are you doing and how can we support you?”

At my old job, I was interacting with a small child. Everything was fine and normal until I turned my face away from the child to look at the parents. The child very innocently gave me a kiss on the cheek to show her thanks and affection. This innocent gesture sent me into the beginnings of a massive PTSD-fueled panic attack. I communicated to a middle man that I was not OK and she communicated it to a leader. The leader walked into the venue, saw me and figured I was just overwhelmed due to the amount of people in the room. She did not stop and ask me what was happening. She just assumed and continued on as normal, signifying that I would just need to get over it. 

Her ignoring my first cry for help worsened the panic attack as I was stuck in my position. Like a bottle under pressure the attack built and grew worse by the second as I smiled at guests. Finally it was too much and I had a breakdown so bad they almost hospitalized me. I was then told that it was my fault and I should have asked for a leader instead of communicating it to the person I had. By ignoring my cry for help, she caused me more pain and harm that I needed to recover from.

Like Janet, I was hurting. While Janet did not communicate that and I did, I see why she didn’t. She did not feel she could safety talk about it, and she was right. Black women are not allowed to be in pain or else we are made uncomfortable and threatening to be around. Will Smith mentioned that he felt “threatened” by not necessarily Janet herself, but anything that could throw off his success. 

I know Janet’s pain not just as an actress, or as a mentally ill person, but as a dark skin Black woman.

Misogynoir and colorism play integral roles in this story as Black women are not afforded the same opportunities to begin with. Darker Black women, or Black women who cannot pass the paper bag test, have even less opportunities due to how far from the proximity of whiteness we are. We deal with the intersection of both racism and misogyny. We don’t have glass ceilings to break — we have concrete walls that encase us. The years it takes to destroy those walls so we can move even an inch forward wears down on our souls. For Janet to become such a prominent face on a show that battled Monday night football ratings is a huge accomplishment, but her ambition and skill at the end of the day couldn’t save her from the vice grip of misogynoir

Janet needed support. She needed help. She was blackballed instead. 

After 30 years of hurting and fighting to survive, she was finally afforded the healing she needed. Will Smith told her that he wants to protect her, instead of sending the dogs on her as he once did. It took 30 years for them to see Janet as a human being capable of hurting. I am so happy she got that healing and was given a platform to talk about her story and tell her truth, but I am enraged to see it took 30 years for it to happen.

In Janet’s story, I saw my own. In her pain, I saw my own. I saw myself in Janet — my hurt, my mental illnesses and lived conditions, my trauma and just like Janet I have seen it be dismissed on every level from familial to professional. 

We need to learn from this reunion special and from Janet Hubert’s story. We need to not only protect Black women as Will Smith said, but also create a safe environment for them so they can talk about their struggles. Janet was being abused and when she lost her job she lost everything. That didn’t have to happen. Supporting Black women means seeing, hearing and understanding us. It means not dismissing us if we seem “off” and following up with us and asking how it’s going. Whether it be intra or inter-community conversations and spaces, we need to listen to Black women when they say they are in pain and watch for the same warning signs we watch for in our lighter skinned or non-Black counterparts. The past 30 years were robbed from her and replaced with more pain, trials and tribulations and they didn’t have to be. 

She has now found the peace and healing she has not had for 30 years and seeing it on television was healing for so many women and girls who look like her. Let’s make changes and infrastructure so no other Black woman has to wait 30 plus years for their healing as well. By ignoring Black women’s pain, we simply cause more of it.

Originally published: November 19, 2020
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