James Avery's death on Tuesday represented a loss for 90s kids but, more importantly, the loss of a strong black father figure both on TV and in real life. First and foremost, he was a real person, survived by his wife and mother, and missed by his former cast mates. But for people who didn't know him personally, he represented an alternative to the image of the black man who won't step up and be a father. Of the many Twitter and Tumblr remembrances popping up, one Fresh Prince of Bel-Air scene appears over and over:
Will's absentee father briefly enters his life, only to abandon him. The scene has been reposted over and over as videos, screen caps and gifs. It's not a scene that showcases Avery (if anything, its one of the first scenes that established Will Smith as a serious actor with range), but as Rembert Browne put it at Grantland, the scene shows why Philip Banks felt real — because he should be real and present for every kid:
He felt real if you saw any Will in yourself. He felt real if, when your "Lou Smith" walked out of the room, you wanted someone to yell at and scream at and ultimately cry on. And James Avery's character continues to feel real if you've vowed to yourself to be the type of father and family member that Philip Banks represented.
Reports that Will Smith (the actor) grew up without a father are untrue, but Avery was raised by a single mother, and maybe knowing that adds something to the scene. Either way, there are lots of '90s kids who saw some Will in themselves, or in their friends. Tumblr user diaryofakanemem posted the scene and added:
James Avery was THE father figure for fatherless young boys back in the 90’s. This scene always touched me. He was an amazing actor, role model, and voice of what a real man is.
Uncle Phil reminded me of my own father a lot & seeing dads like him & Cliff Huxtable & countless other Black dads that were present (even if not conventionally through marriage or blood) in their kids’ lives. They were the antithesis to the message that “Black men abandon”. They were support to the Black women in these kids’ lives, they erased the idea that we needed a White saviour to come riding in & fix everything b/c of their magnanimity.
Growing up for me Cliff Huxtable, played by Bill Cosby, and Uncle Phil served as templates for what I wanted to have as a child and aspired to become as a man/father/husband. [...] During that time and even now, we still do not see many if any, positive role models for black males. It’s sad because I know what it did for me growing up.
Today, the strong, successful, multidimensional black TV father isn't on broadcast television. There was a time, during the 80s and 90s, when Carl Winslow of Family Matters, Cliff Huxtable of The Cosby Show and Philip Banks on The Fresh Prince portrayed present, caring, black fathers on ABC, CBS and NBC. Those shows were successful, and led to shows like Everybody Hates Chris, The Bernie Mac Show and My Wife and Kids. All those shows are over, and nothing has really filled that void.