Janet Hubert’s Aunt Viv built a place for herself in my heart when I first laid eyes on her over 20 years ago. Aunt Viv was more important to me than Will, Phil, Hillary, Ashley or Carlton because she looked like me. She wasn’t just their aunt, she was my Aunt Viv . Regal and authoritative like my dearly departed grandmother. The defining moment that cemented her in my psyche was an episode in the second season "The Big Four-Oh" when Aunt Viv decided she wanted to dance. Her vindication at the end of the iconic dance sequence was a shared experience amongst all black women who had ever been told they’d never be good enough.
Do you get it? Janet Hubert is important to me. And it is crucial that I make the distinction that it is Hubert and not the character alone who helped shaped my idea of what a strong black woman is. Daphne Maxwell Reed who played Aunt Viv in the final three seasons of the 90’s sitcom was a solid replacement but her docile realisation of the character did not hold a light to Hubert’s, in my humble opinion.
Since the role of Aunt Viv was unceremoniously recast in 1993 Janet Hubert has been presented as the angry black woman who “went nuts” according to Alfonso Ribeiro who went as far as saying “the bitch was crazy” and that Hubert had “made it difficult for us to work” when they were on set.
The angry black woman trope is a stereotype possessing an assertive, finger snapping, neck rolling and nagging demeanour that has been applied black women in the media for since the 1930s. Hubert has not escaped being categorised simply and singularly as aggressive and antagonistic. Headline after headline uphold the idea that Hubert is a “looney tune” who has “used up all her courtesy meltdowns.” Hmmm, I didn't know there was a quota for anger but apparently Aunt Viv has reached hers. Does she know? Some media outlets even suggest “21 years is too long to hold so much anger in your heart.”
Look, anger is a symptom, not the cause. Janet Hubert didn’t wake up angry with her peers. The media have identified her as an ABW but that is too easy. It is a basic, Key Stage 2 analysis, one which Huda Hassan in this Buzz Feed article explains “serves to silence women, and in particular to erase our identification of racism and sexism.”
I don’t know Janet Hubert personally but from a simple Google search it’s easy to see why she might be “angry.” In 1993 during contract negotiations for the 4th season of NBC’s The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Hubert was unhappy with what she was being offered, gambled by playing hard ball in the hopes of going back and forth with the network in order to reach an agreement with which she would be satisfied. The strategy failed and she was replaced by Maxwell-Reid for the last 3 seasons of the show. Why was she unhappy? NBC and the executives were attempting to cut her pay and the amount of episodes in which she would appear. Hubert claimed in a lawsuit that she was fired when Will Smith, the show’s star, became hostile after she became pregnant.
Hubert admits in her Life After during the filming of her final season as part of the cast there were times when she wasn’t as patient as she could have been, not talking to fellow cast members until she was on set and ready to perform. *sigh * I’ve run a set of up to 30 actors with big personalities for the past 4 seasons on Dear Jesus and I can honestly say that it is uncomfortable when there are tensions between cast members, no amount of professionalism can make up for a contentious environment, ultimately it affects the outcome of your work. As a content producer who has recast characters multiple times, I believe no actor should ever dictate to me how they will behave on set. But let’s be realistic, my show is a web series, Fresh Prince of Bel Air was and remains an icon, a seminal work that will continue to stand the test of time.
According to reports, Will Smith said in a radio interview after her 1993 departure that Hubert “wanted the show to be the’Aunt Viv of Bel Air Show.” That might or might not be true but Hubert’s Vivian Banks played an integral role in the initial the success of the show. When black people and people of colour in general are represented in television shows the networks brave enough to air such shows reap the rewards; quite simply “Diversity makes more money” as this NPR article outlines. Vivian Banks represented professional black women of a certain age who would be hard pressed to find themselves on the television other than for Hubert’s portrayal or Phylicia Rashad’s Clair Huxtable in The Cosby’s.
Janet Hubert was justified in seeking a better contract with a higher salary. The show grew in popularity and ratings over the first three seasons peaking with an audience of 14.6 million in the last season Hubert starred in. Actors on your favourite shows all regularly renegotiated their salaries for the season ahead depending on the success of the show. By Season 9 of Friends each of the main cast members made $1million dollars per episode. Up until the scandal that brought an end to the Cosby syndication, the children of the Cosby show each made $3.7 million a year from reruns alone. Hubert attempted to demand what she believed was her due and was reprimanded publicly and humiliatingly for it. Hubert lost a $250,000 a year salary for doing what her peers had done and was seen as normal business practice. The fact of the matter is Janet Hubert was contracted to play a character, which she did outstandingly and yet she was fired.
Ask yourself if you’d be a little salty?
Maybe a little bit mad?
Dare I go as far as saying if it were you, you might be duh Duh DUH angry?
Let’s do a quick bit of math, not my strong point but follow me for a second if you will. Fresh Prince ran for 3 seasons after Hubert’s dismissal 6 seasons in total. According to Will Smith, Hubert was making $250,000 a year which works out to be roughly $10,000 per episode give or take depending on if she starred in all 24/25 episodes of the three seasons she worked in. In the contract negotiations for the 4th season, NBC’s proposed contract stated she only appear in 10 episodes. This would mean that her salary would drop from $250,000 to just $100,000 a year. I don’t know much when it comes to numbers but I know these figures no mek it (for the uninitiated among us, that’s patois for “these figures seem ludicrous.”) Was her behavior so outrageous that it warranted a 60% drop in earnings?
Imagine you’re Janet Hubert for a minute, you’ve just been let go from one of the most popular shows in the world, you’re a 38 year old black woman in Hollywood where roles for women of your age and race are few and far between, Will Smith who will go on to be one of the biggest stars in the world has gone on the radio and made light of how easy it is to replace you. Tell me you’re not going to be upset and that you’ll just get over it. Tell me that despite your high risk pregnancy you work right up until it was time to give birth and you were still fired from show now firmly rooted in pop culture in part due to your input. Tell me that would fly with you.
You cannot. You can’t say that this would be an easy pill to swallow, that you would take this lying down. Janet Hubert felt wronged and who are we to tell her to be quiet and get over it? To be honest, after that math lesson, I feel wronged on her behalf.
Think about this for a second, if Jennifer Aniston, Courtney Cox or Lisa Kudrow was badly behaved on set during Friends, would they have lowballed her contract negotiations, fired her, replaced her and then badmouthed her in the press? Nah, fam. They would have been sued so quickly and effectively. What’s that I hear “Oh, Dani, Fresh Prince isn’t like Friends.” For you maybe, but The Fresh Prince of Bel Air was my Friends and I can’t imagine what happened to Hubert happening to any of the Friends cast members. "Oh but Dani, her pregnancy was written into the story line to accommodate her," What do they want? A cookie? It is right that the show producers work around her pregnancy.
The problem with Janet Hubert is not what she is saying. The problem is that people rarely listen to why she is saying what she is; the why is lost in how she’s saying it, buried under the deafening blare of this technicolour dream coat of aggression she’s been forced to wear. This technicolour dream coat is an invisible coat that stereotypical, black women wear which allows us to ignore what they are saying and specifically in the case of Janet Hubert only see her as this one dimensional, crazy, looney tunes bitch who singlehandedly jeopardised the productivity of the set of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.
However, if the problem is how she’s speaking this now becomes a respectability politics discussion where we police how black women present themselves to appease and pacify those who find Hubert’s assertive, self assured delivery unattractive. Let’s not do that. Let us truly listen to what Hubert is saying. We can then choose to criticise or agree with her based on the words she speaks and not react to a caricature that was created and perpetuated to justify her firing.
When Hubert criticised The Smith’s in her now viral video posted on her Facebook page by stating that they have a production company based in Hollywood that only caters to them and their friends thus feeding into the Hollywood machine, this wasn’t untrue, you can visit the Overbrook website and see for yourself. I do have to say that the work Overbrook produces is not unlike that of Brad Pitt’s production company Plan B Entertainment which also caters to his friends. This is the nature of Hollywood and the Entertainment industry in general. Nepotism is the name of the game. If Hubert is saying that The Smiths have to be start of the change they want to see in Hollywood with a production company that seeks to open the doors for other people of colour, then yes, I concur. However, what I cannot abide by is ignoring the fact that if not for this black owned production company many of their highest grossing titles would not have been picked up by other production houses. Their work is successful. Their work is important.
Janet Hubert is not infallible to me. I have eyes and ears and I pree the problematic things that she says. Like calling Stacey Dash a media ho. But Janet Hubert is important. She has an attitude and that attitude landed her the role of Vivian Banks in the first place. Her attitude was and remains one of fierceness, confidence and unapologetic blackness that endeared her to millions but it was also that attitude that was her undoing. Do I think Will Smith intentionally set out to malign this black woman? No, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Black women can be angry sometimes, like all humans can, and in those times we are justified and we should be allowed to express our anger. Will Smith was able to outgrow Fresh Prince and reach the highest of heights, Janet Hubert was not and while she has worked consistently since she left Bel Air, she has never again known that level of success. She has never been able to shed the Angry Black Woman coat that was thrust upon her and I ask you again, wouldn’t you be just a little bit angry too?