How 'Fresh Prince of Bel-Air' Anticipated Ferguson More Than 20 Years Ago

How 'Fresh Prince of Bel-Air' Anticipated Ferguson More Than 20 Years Ago

"Hands up, don't shoot" has been the rallying call of protesters in Ferguson, Mo., following the shooting death of unarmed black teen Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9. 

Eerily, that sentiment is nearly identical to one put forth by Will's best friend Jazz in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. In the second season episode "Cased Up," Jazz (played by DJ Jazzy Jeff) appears in court following a car accident with Uncle Phil's protege Eric. The whole episode is, in typical Fresh Prince style, relatively humorous, but this bit (posted by Tumblr user Marvin) is eerily familiar in light of the ongoing unrest in Ferguson.




Image Credits: NBC via MVGL/Tumblr

Obviously, pop culture ephemera is often an inefficient (and, in some cases, grossly inappropriate) medium for explaining the intricacies of complex sociopolitical conflicts. But this episode, which was first broadcast on Nov. 11, 1991, resonates deeply in the wake of Ferguson (Jazz was worried about being shot six times; according to an autopsy reports, Michael Brown actually was). The sad fact is that Fresh Prince captured what remains, 23 years later, a disturbing truth for black Americans: They're constantly in jeopardy for no other reason than "walking while black." 

And this was true well before the death of Michael Brown. Consider Jordan Davis, shot and killed for listening to loud music. Or Bobby Wingate, tasered and arrested for walking on the wrong side of the street. Or Chris Beatty, arrested for "trespassing" while drinking iced tea. Or Earl Sampson, arrested simply for showing up to work.

Why does this happen? Because, despite ridiculous claims that racism "ended in the '60s," black men in America are continually forced to grapple with the fact that their lives are essentially valueless to law enforcement. Judging by the violence they've faced under the most asinine circumstances, you'd think a black person's life in America was worth less than a box of cigars, a carton of cigarettes, a phone call, a laptop, a tube of toothpaste, a hoodie and a bottle of orange juice. Mic's Zak Cheney-Rice sums this up powerfully: "When a black person is killed under dubious circumstances, the conversation inevitably turns to what the victim did to precipitate — if not outright deserve — such an abrupt and violent demise."

And this is the fundamental problem expressed in Fresh Prince, which was one of the highest-rated television shows among black audiences in 1991, according to Nielsen. To the average NBC viewer of the time, Jazz is the trouble-making counterpart to Will, a black Jughead to Smith's updated Archie. But in reality, Jazz in "Cased Up" is a sad reminder of the oppressive truth of life as a black man in America. 

Some viewers may have greeted his line with a laugh; today, with all eyes on Ferguson, it's plain to see it was no joke. 

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Jared Keller

Jared Keller is the former director of news at Mic.

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