‘Bel-Air’ and the Flawed Logic of ‘Black Excellence’

A pair of huge double doorways swing open, and a teenage Will Smith (performed by Jabari Banks) walks into his aunt and uncle’s palatial Bel-Air dwelling, the place a big-dollar cocktail-party fundraiser is happening. The soulful hip-hop music “A Lot,” by 21 Savage, soundtracks the scene. “How much money you got? (A lot),” the lyrics recite, seemingly narrating Will’s awe as he clocks the fabric proof of the Banks-family fortune. “Yo! I got some rich-ass relatives,” he says. This scene is from the primary episode of Peacock’s Bel-Air, one of many most anticipated Black tv exhibits of this 12 months and a dramatic reboot of the ’90s sitcom staple The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

Later in that very same episode, the Banks kids, Hilary, Carlton, and Ashley, are groaning concerning the household photograph they know is inevitable. Then, Carlton asks his sisters, “What could go wrong with a photo op with us in it? I mean look at us, pure, unadulterated Black excellence.” To which Hilary responds: “Period.” The siblings perceive that as a way to characterize their household—one of many few Black households of their ultra-affluent neighborhood—within the method that their dad and mom and college directors count on, they have to be distinctive in look and habits, a actuality that they each embrace and detest. Dramatic pressure builds over the season as their outsider cousin, Will, struggles to seek out his place of their world.

Bel-Air is a part of a cohort of current exhibits that discover Black prosperity. Fox’s Our Kind of People, a Martha’s Vineyard–set prime-time melodrama, delivers the dueling-families spectacle of Nineteen Eighties fan favorites corresponding to Dynasty. And OWN’s soapy The Kings of Napa facilities on a household that owns and operates a profitable winery in California’s vaunted Napa Valley. These three exhibits differ in plot, tone, and manufacturing worth, but they’re all fluent within the language of “Black excellence,” or the long-held perception amongst African Americans that they have to work twice as laborious for half as a lot as white folks obtain. The time period first comes up in Our Kind of People throughout a heated trade between the rivals Leah (Nadine Ellis) and Angela (Yaya DaCosta); Leah accuses Angela of being a social climber who can’t evaluate to the island’s elite, of which Leah is part. Describing her circle, Leah says, “We don’t just have a summer fling with Black excellence. We are Black excellence.” In The Kings of Napa, the matriarch, Vanessa King (Karen LeBlanc), tells her relations about her and her late husband’s unique imaginative and prescient for his or her enterprise. “We said that people were going to see Black excellence in motion: wine, style, cuisine, all of it.”

These exhibits are obsessive about money and glamour, reminding viewers in almost each scene that African Americans, too, have generational wealth and complex style. For some Black viewers—the presumed core viewers for these sequence—the glitzy theatrics present welcome escapism from a world rife with anti-Black violence. But these exhibits additionally really feel out of step with the cultural zeitgeist and with an viewers that has been displaying indicators of Black-excellence fatigue for a while. Since 2020, aversion has grown particularly towards the ideology that hyperlinks exorbitant wealth and conspicuous consumption to social progress for African Americans. This thought sample mandates that African Americans work twice as laborious to get … issues: mansions, designer garments, non-public jets to personal islands. Many Black capitalists have lengthy argued that purchasing energy and entrepreneurship are the path to racial and financial justice. But the impression of the continued coronavirus pandemic and its concomitant financial results for Black communities, in addition to the nationwide protests after the police killing of George Floyd, led to public disavowals of “excellence” and free enterprise reaching a fever pitch.

In this social and political panorama, a present corresponding to The Kings of Napa would possibly really feel insensitive. At one level, a personality says, “I love rich Black folks, especially really rich Black folks,” earlier than turning to a member of the family and asking, “What do you think the slaves are saying?”—implying that their luxurious life-style would make their ancestors proud. Bel-Air additionally revels in ostentatious consumption, as mirrored in its hip-hop soundtrack. Music by Meek Mill, Bobby Shmurda, and Moneybagg Yo pays homage to the unique present’s hip-hop roots whereas the lyrics loudly hyperlink Black excellence to shows of wealth.

A becoming addition to the monitor listing would have been Jay-Z and Kanye West’s 2011 music “Murder to Excellence,” which spoke to a second of optimism for a lot of Black Americans. In it, Jay-Z raps: “Black excellence, opulence, decadence / Tuxes next to the president, I’m present … I stink of success, the new Black elite.” The podcast host and cultural commentator Sylvia Obell put the music’s lyrics right into a nationwide political context. “There was that slight high between when [Barack] Obama won [his first presidential election, in 2008,] and before Trayvon Martin got shot [in 2012] where I think hope was the drug that we were all riding on and Black excellence felt like, Oh, maybe we can be anything!” Obell instructed me. The killing of 17-year-old Martin by the hands of a vigilante was a stinging realization for a lot of Millennials like Obell: “Black excellence is not enough to keep us alive … So why am I trying so hard to be excellent? Maybe I can just be me.”

Still, the outdated narrative gained traction once more a number of years later. In a 2017 episode of the podcast Toure Show titled “Puffy: How to Make a Billion,” the artist and entrepreneur Diddy outlined Black excellence as “when we tap into our magic.” His magic concerned making tons of cash and socializing with different members of the elite, notably on the unique Roc Nation Brunch, hosted often by Jay-Z and Beyoncé. By the January 2020 gathering, Jay-Z had grow to be a billionaire. Images from that day captivated road youth and rising Black professionals alike, who concluded that success—whether or not within the underground economic system or within the boardroom—would give them unprecedented shopping for energy. Diddy and others who had “started from the bottom” appeared to consider that their place on a Forbes listing was an indication of racial change, that their laborious work and success within the free market would profit the complete race. Black millionaires and billionaires, they declared, might fund racial-justice initiatives and create new jobs.

And then, two months later, the world shut down. Nearly 10 million folks misplaced their job within the United States that 12 months, and Black and brown folks had been amongst these hardest hit. Meanwhile, billionaires acquired even richer in the course of the pandemic. As the dying toll and unemployment numbers rose, conversations about anti-capitalism appeared to succeed in a uncommon stage of fervor. #TaxTheRich grew to become widespread on Twitter. People wrote about capitalism’s ties to Black-labor exploitation, a connection that dates again to the worldwide slave commerce. Books corresponding to Destin Jenkins and Justin Leroy’s 2021 Histories of Racial Capitalism grappled with the historic antecedents of at this time’s tensions with the 1 p.c. The emphatic level of those discussions was not that Black folks ought to stay in poverty, however that elevating up a Black millionaire class doesn’t outcome from or result in financial justice, irrespective of how laborious its members have labored to earn their property.

Examining wealth distribution, as an alternative of earnings, as a framework for learning financial disparities exhibits the stark hole between Black and white Americans. Today, in line with a current Deutsche Welle documentary on America’s Black higher class, solely 2 p.c of Black households are millionaires. In different phrases, most should not dwelling the lavish lives that individuals like Diddy characterize. “Excellence as a framing of opulence is not Black or white. That’s American,” Darrick Hamilton, a professor of economics and concrete coverage at The New School, instructed me. Racializing excellence forces Black Americans to measure their success in line with a capitalist system that was bolstered by Jim Crow racial logic and bolstered by anti-Black financial insurance policies. “I want to structure the society where excellence is something we applaud and strive for, but it’s not a necessary ingredient just to survive,” Hamilton stated.

For all its fixation on excellence, Bel-Air does sometimes present indicators of self-awareness. In the episode “Canvass,” Will and Carlton debrief about why Uncle Phil’s marketing campaign to grow to be district legal professional isn’t resonating with working-class voters. Will tries to clarify the hood’s mistrust of “the system.” Carlton dismisses Will’s take, saying, “Apathy isn’t a solution.” Will doubles down: “Being asked to choose between two shitty options is bullshit.” But these insightful moments are few. The gravitational pull of the present is towards the Bankses’ life-style. The units, the costumes, and the extent of entry and energy they connote are presupposed to be so engaging that viewers would wish to commerce locations with Will. The present means that Will’s new life in Bel-Air is a step up for him as a child from West Philadelphia—although his mother is a financially impartial nurse and Will was already college-bound. In different phrases, the writers have reused the favored hood-kid fish-out-of-water narrative on a middle-class child, making the already unsophisticated class critique really feel additional off-key.

Though there’ll all the time be an urge for food for exhibits about unattainable riches, Obell believes that audiences at this time need extra balanced therapies of African Americans and cash in popular culture. “Who wants to see these extreme levels of wealth displayed at a time when people are just struggling to feed their families?” Obell requested. She famous that Starz’s drug-lord drama franchise Power is extremely watched Black programming. This reputation isn’t solely as a result of viewers like to eat African American street-hustler tropes but additionally as a result of these exhibits are extra keen to have an unvarnished dialog about capitalism, the American dream, and the struggles of the working poor. Queen Sugar, which can air its last season this summer season, has been the most effective exhibits in current historical past to tackle race, class, and generational inheritance. It has modeled, notably in its first 4 seasons, how a present might tackle these subjects with sincerity, with out naively perpetuating myths about cash as racial progress or denigrating characters due to their monetary place.

Further, many Gen Z African American viewers might not wish to be preached to about respectability and uphill battles. Some have embraced the comfortable life, or a dedication to a low-stress, “high-vibrational” life-style, as a quiet protest towards the “they sleep, we grind” ethos of Black excellence. Bel-Air, with its younger forged, has a greater probability of pivoting in its second season than The Kings of Napa and Our Kind of People (neither of the latter two has been renewed or canceled but). I think about that as Bel-Air finds its footing, viewers will see it interact immediately with the idea of prioritizing relaxation and well-being (Hilary appears primed for such a plotline) and extra conversations about class that draw from COVID-era debates. The sequence’ co-showrunners, T. J. Brady and Rasheed Newson, instructed Collider that within the first season they had been “nervous” that they’d “go too far” with a narrative line in ways in which the unique producers would disapprove of. “There are so many pieces on the board” for Season 2, Newson stated. “And we’ve gotta grow.” Perhaps they’ll depart from the inflexible framework of sophistication that they’d inherited from the unique sitcom. Otherwise, Will’s “rebellious” act of carrying Retro Jordan 5s in a Ferragamo-loafers world may not be sufficient to maintain up with an viewers that’s carried out some rising up of its personal.

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