This scene is regularly featured on “Television’s Saddest Moments” blog articles or forum posts, so I thought I should definitely include it here. It comes from the fourth season of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, episode number twenty-four. It’s called “Papa’s Got a Brand-New Excuse,” and it first aired on May 9, 1994. For the purposes of this website, it’s mainly a study in how an actor can deliver emotional scenes, and is relatively straightforward, but I think there’s also something to be learned from the script and certain cinematic elements.
In this episode, Lou (Ben Vereen), who is Will Smith’s absentee father, shows up in Bel-Air unannounced and rekindles his relationship Will. Over the course of the episode Will becomes more and more enamored with the man who has been gone since his childhood, and they plan on taking a trip together to bond and make up for lost time. In the end, however, Will’s father abandons him again, leading to Will’s angry speech. A more detailed recap is available here.
However, neither familiarity with the episode nor the series is necessary to be touched by the content of this scene. Even in isolation, the moment is extremely heartbreaking. The themes of parental abandonment and attachment are easily identifiable and relatable, and the emotion is heaped on through the intensity of Will’s acting. Especially notable is how Will’s monologue uses his anger to generate heightened emotions on the part of the viewer, culminating in great sadness.
Read on for more analysis and other items related to the scene.
A lot can be learned by looking very specifically at how the actors’ body language, vocal delivery, and word choice convey the different emotions that fly through this scene.
The Confrontation Between Will and His Father
The tone of the moment is set at the very beginning, with the hot words thrown between Uncle Phil (James Avery) and Lou concerning Uncle Phil’s displeasure with Lou’s departure. Will’s unexpected entry and shout of “Daddy-o!” make it clear that there’s a paternal relationship and that Will is in high spirits for the trip, and his manner is in such stark contrast with the atmosphere in the room that it alerts the viewer that something very unpleasant is about to take place.
His interaction with his father oozes with awkwardness and embarrassment on the part of Lou, who delivers a shamed apology and starts with time-old half-promises, and tries to force joviality into the exchange. Will stonewalls his emotions and feigns nonchalance. That he’s trying to distract himself and that he’s trying to rush the uncomfortable moment away is is plain from his fidgety motions and needless rearrangement of his clothes, his quick assertions and nods, and the clipped tone of his voice.
Their opposing sign-offs, Lou addressing Will as “son” and Will pausing before addressing his father only as “Lou,” make it clear that Will has made a decision about the man before him. At first, I thought that the line was a little contrived, but the more I watch the scene the more I like the word choice. The obvious pause before delivery makes it clear that the next word coming is important. It makes the “Lou” seem positively venomous, and is the first indication of anger on the part of Will. His silence and the staredown he gives his father next make it clear that all that needs to be said between them has been said, so his father beats a hasty retreat. Will’s gaze lingers and the expression on his face isn’t necessarily angry, it seems more numb than anything, as if his heart has put a hold on all emotion for fear that it would hurt too much.
Then, in response to Uncle Phil’s reaching out, Will tries to put on his normal persona, but even those unfamiliar with the character can see the false front. Although this might require more familiarity with the series, the absence of any audience laughter (the show has certainly used real audiences in the past, I don’t know if they included one for this taping or not) is a huge contrast that heightens the drama of the scene. Unfamiliar viewers, though, will still recognize the dramatic silence of the scene for what it is. In fact, there’s a youtube video that tries to add some background music to it, and not to very good effect. I think the music was okay, and in theory there’s probably some score that works, but the music written for the video just didn’t sell the scene on par with Will. It was more distracting than complimentary.
Then, Uncle Phil barrels past Will’s demeanor and cuts right to the heart of how Will is feeling (“Will, it’s alright to be angry.”) Will’s anger ramps up as he expresses regret that he bought the “stupid present” and rips it from his bag. But then in a nice touch he places the sculpture gently on the table, as if it is nevertheless precious and meaningful to him. After this Uncle Phil plays a passive role, supporting Will simply by listening. It’s difficult to see in the grainy youtube video, but Uncle Phil is on the verge of crying the entire time.
Now, I can’t find any hard information about how much of Will’s subsequent monologue was scripted, and how much of it was improvised. The delivery must belong largely to him, and in my opinion every moment of it is believable. The timing of it and Will’s interjections, emphasis, body language (lots of movement, poking the air to emphasize points), and the steadily escalating tone of his voice make it so very clear how angry he is. He screams at the right point, and when he tries to walk out of the room but then comes back his voice even starts breaking, and you can feel that he’s not finished with the subject and there’s still more in him. It’s righteous indignation that he’s expressing. Realize that all of Will’s body language shouts out that he’s angry, and although the movements are directed toward Uncle Phil, the anger is meant for his father and his own situation.
The Emotional Climax
The content of the speech is excellent for making the scene so moving and for making it work as a stand-alone moment; the audience doesn’t just hear why his father is a bad dad or how disappointed Will is with him, Will goes through an entire narrative. He tells a story of how much the inexplicable absence of the person that a young child loved hurt that child. The image of helpless children is really distressing to people, and Will invokes it here. He describes all those moments growing up when he wanted to interact with his father and wished he could have been there. And it predicts all those moments in the future where his father will never be. This was all-in-all a very well structured monologue, because the viewer gets hit with Will’s lifetime of emotional anguish in just moments.
As for the emotional trigger, for me it was the line “I’m gonna be a better father than he ever was, and I sure as hell don’t need him for that, ’cause there ain’t a damn thing he could ever teach me about how to love my kids!” that got me tearing up. Even more so than when he embraces Uncle Phil and cries in absolute misery, obviously hurt deeply by his father’s leaving. That was just icing on the emotional cake. Note that Will also had tears streaming down his face for the final part of the monologue. Finally, rather than panning away from the characters, or onto their faces, the camera pans onto the gift that Will placed on the table, the statuette of a father holding his young son protectively. This is another often seen film technique, finishing a shot on some symbolic object. I think that this is an added touch of poignancy that makes the whole thing more memorable.
What most impressed me about this scene was how anger on the part of Will translated into sadness on the part of the viewer. Uncle Phil’s quiet reactions, I think, probably mirrored most of what the audience was feeling. Obviously the situation and the way Lou behaved made him angry inside, as it probably made viewers angry. Yet in that moment I don’t think that emotion was at the top of his mind, just as anger wasn’t really what the viewers are primarily feeling. Rather, it’s as if Uncle Phil anger is overcome with this empathy for Will; as if he knew how painful it was for him and he was helpless to do anything but be there for Will as Will sorted through what he was feeling himself. The viewer empathizes with Will similarly, filled with great pity for this person who has been so harmed.
Contrary Views & Miscellany
On the other hand, there are other viewers who will say that the scene at most makes them sad, but not completely emotional. There are a number of subjective influences that could account for that. Perhaps being a fan of the show and seeing the stark contrast between Will-usually and Will-now influences how dramatic you think the scene is. My wife, who is not a fan of the show, acknowledged that the scene was moving, but it didn’t make her teary. One of her thoughts was that she didn’t really like the style of acting. Which is a fair point, because unless you’ve got nostalgia goggles on, it could be distracting. Another question is whether or not men and women might react differently to this scene; I wonder if there is any psychological research about the differences in father-son and father-daughter relationships. Also, if you have real life experience with an absentee father or you are an absentee father, you might be struck more deeply by Will. Various comments around the internet, made by people who claim to have been similarly abandoned, often say that Will expressed, dead on, what they were feeling.
And finally, I’ve included the transcript of the scene, and a more humorous video afterward to lighten the mood!
Uncle Phil: “Will, it’s alright to be angry.”
Will: “Hey, why should I be mad? I’m saying, at least he said goodbye this time. I just wish I hadn’t wasted my money buying this stupid present.”
Uncle Phil: “I’m sorry, I, you know, if there was… something that I could do–”
Will: “Hey, you know what? You ain’t got to do nothing, Uncle Phil. Hey, you know? Ain’t like I’m still five-years old, you know? Ain’t like I’m going to be sitting up every night asking my Mom, ‘When’s Daddy coming home?’ You know? Who needs him? Hey, he wasn’t there to teach me how to shoot my first basket, but I learned, didn’t I? Hey I got pretty damned good at it too, didn’t I Uncle Phil?”
Uncle Phil: “Yeah, you did.”
Will: “Got through my first date without him, right? I learned how to drive, I learned how to shave, I learned how to fight without him. I had FOURTEEN great birthdays without him! He never even sent me a damn card–TO HELL WITH HIM!”
Will: “I didn’t need him them and I don’t need him now.”
Uncle Phil: “Will…”
Will: “Nah, you know what Uncle Phil? I’m gonna get through college without him. I’m gonna get a great job without him. I’m gonna marry me a beautiful honey, and I’m having me a whole bunch of kids, I’m gonna be a better father than he ever was, and I sure as hell don’t need him for that, ’cause there ain’t a damn thing he could ever teach me about how to love my kids!”
Will: “How come he don’t want me, man?”