August 17, 2022

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“I felt bad I wasn’t cast,” recalled the veteran actress. But that didn’t mean Freeman...

“I felt bad I wasn’t cast,” recalled the veteran actress. But that didn’t mean Freeman was ready to audition. “Fresh Prince” still felt untouchable, and the role of Vivian Banks, the fierce family matriarch affectionally known as Aunt Viv, even more so.

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“It still feels surreal,” said Freeman, who eventually sent in her audition tape and landed the role of one of television’s most beloved aunties. Now she just had to figure out how to step into a character that had already been portrayed with dynamism by actress Janet Hubert in the first half of the original series and handled with delicate care by Daphne Maxwell Reid in the second.

Freeman’s deference was understandable. Aunt Viv is not to be messed with, in more ways than one. In six seasons and nearly three decades of syndication, the fierce mother of three has transcended the small screen and shot into icon status. While plenty of popular aunts have occupied the modern TV landscape — Aunt Bee (“Andy Griffin”), Aunt Becky (“Full House”), Aunt Jackie (“Roseanne”), heck, even Aunt Lydia (“Handmaid’s Tale”) — none have come close to the canonization of Aunt Viv.

When audiences are introduced to Vivian Banks — career woman, wife and mother — she is a vision in St. John suits who looks perfectly at home in the upper crust. She’s cut from the same cloth as “The Cosby Show’s” Clair Huxtable: professional, gorgeous and no-nonsense. It isn’t until the deep into the first season that we learn that as a teenager she “ran off with some guy and quit school.” She cleaned hotel rooms by day and went to school at night. “I worked damn hard to get here and I know I deserve it,” Vivian explains in a keep-it-real moment.

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According to scholar Robin R. Means Coleman, Vivian was a tipping point. The image of a strong but tender, elegant, highly educated and street-smart Black mother on prime-time TV was a thumb on the scale against stereotypes. It was an edgier version of “The Cosby Show” and “A Different World,” but still concerned with respectability and the power of representation.

Fans loved (and continue to love) her, Means Coleman said, because she wasn’t just inspiring, but was also grounded and familiar in ways that Black viewers could relate to. There was the time Aunt Viv schooled Carlton and Will on Black history. Or the time she showed up at the police station ready to fight for her son and nephew. She’d take off those giant pearl earrings in a second.

Hubert, who played Aunt Viv for the first three season of the series before exiting over a contract dispute, defined the character as “fierce.” (The actress declined to comment for this article.)

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“She was not just a schoolteacher; she was a professional woman, she looked good, she was smart,” Hubert told the Root in a 2018 interview. “And I loved that they allowed me to bring parts of Janet into who Vivian was. It was a very complete role.”

Hubert’s Aunt Viv cemented the character as pop culture’s forever aunt. One of the show’s most enduring scenes came courtesy of her Broadway talents. In the second season episode “The Big Four Oh,” Vivian has a midlife crisis after turning 40 and decides to follow her childhood dream of becoming a dancer.

According to writer Lisa Rosenthal, the goal of the episode was to show Vivian as “a human being with her own goals and concerns.” In a moment that would endear her to fans for decades, the character steps out of the boxes that define her and leaps onto the dance floor (after a few missteps), quite literally proving the haters around her wrong. It was powerful and unforgettable.

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Before that seminal episode, Rosenthal said she thought Vivian was being underutilized. “She was doing a lot of reacting, but there wasn’t anything that was hers,” she said.

If Rosenthal were writing that character today, she said, things would have ended differently. In the sitcom world, everyone has to go back to their positions when the credits roll, but in 2022, Rosenthal would have stretched the aha moment past one episode. “It would have been more of a realization that something changed in her life,” she said.

That awakening is actually at the heart of Aunt Viv 3.0.

Much like the two-stepping Vivian, the new Viv is at a crossroads, stuck somewhere between identities. Is she a wife? A mother? An artist? The tension is pointed out in one heated “Bel-Air” scene between Vivian and her older daughter Hillary, a Instagram chef-luencer who doesn’t want to compromise her integrity for a major brand.

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“Nobody has to go through life without compromising a little,” Vivian advises.

“Right,” Hillary says, “like deciding to be an art history teacher instead of actually being an artist.”

The burn goes deep for Vivian, according to Freeman. “She’s playing the tambourine for the family. She’s the backup. To me, she feels like a paper doll,” she said. “Throughout the season you start to see these cages she’s been locked in.”

Having a fresh and reverent take on the character meant Freeman didn’t have to do what Janet and Daphne did. “We could create our own character,” she said. Cooper, co-creator of the reboot, kept coming back to the same word: swagger.

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So Freeman drew inspiration from the women around her who could command the room without breaking a sweat. Her former co-star Pauletta Washington was one of them.

Washington “just walks into a room and she lights it up, and she comes with so much history and grandeur but she brings where she’s from,” said Freeman, who followed that blueprint for her portrayal of Aunt Viv. She wanted the character to feel like “the queen of aunties” but also like “she’s just a moment away of Philly.” That’s why her speech frequently switches from overly polished to conspiratorially familiar. This Vivian isn’t “putting on airs” or afraid of showing she’s down.

Taking on a role already played by two actresses is both an opportunity and a risk. Fans may love this latest iteration of Vivian, or they could shun her like many did Reid, whose version of the character was nothing like the one that came before. According to Reid, though, that was the point.

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While Hubert’s Vivian was charismatic and bold, Reid’s Vivian was warm, homey and, above all, stable. The actress, who replaced Hubert, wanted her Aunt Viv to feel like her.

“I wasn’t trying to imitate [Hubert]. I wasn’t trying to reestablish the same character. I couldn’t. She had a different talent that I had. But they hired me be the person that I am,” Reid said.

“I’m sure Aunt Viv 3.0 is bringing her whole self to it,” she added. “I saw the trailer. I love this woman. She’s carrying on the tradition.”


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