When actress Janet Hubert posted a video to her Facebook page Monday night, she had no idea that it would get picked up by the national news media and shared widely on social media. Then again, she was criticizing her former “Fresh Prince of Bel Air” costar's wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, who had called for a boycott of the Oscars over the list of all-white acting nominees.
“I was looking at this ridiculousness people called a historic moment and I was annoyed,” she said in an interview with The Times. “I was annoyed because it dilutes the movement when you only stand up for yourself.
#OscarsSoWhite: Full coverage of the boycott and Hollywood's reaction
"I’m a real freedom fighter. I’m not a pretend freedom fighter. I stand up for other actresses, other people. The Smiths just irked me because they are such pretenders, and everything is a photo op," she said, speaking of Pinkett Smith and her husband, former "Fresh Prince" star Will Smith. "It’s just self-contrived because her hubby didn’t get a nomination.”
Hubert is known best for playing Aunt Viv on “Fresh Prince,” which began in 1990. But after she was replaced by Daphne Reid in 1993 — amid reports that Hubert was difficult to work with — the actress said she was blacklisted. After watching Pinkett Smith’s suggestion that people not watch or attend the Academy Awards, Hubert said she chose to let her voice, and “the real story” about her “Fresh Prince” dismissal, be heard. The self-proclaimed "blacktress" detailed her experience in her 2009 memoir, "Perfection Is Not a Sitcom Mom."
The Times spoke with Hubert by phone Tuesday about her video and calls for an Oscars boycott and broader diversity in Hollywood. The interview, edited for clarity:
You're known for doing videos about popular culture, but they're often in a character. You chose not to do one for this. Why?
I didn’t want to do a character because I wanted this to be me. I wanted to speak from my heart about how I felt because people really don’t know me. They know Vivian Banks, but they don’t know Janet Hubert. It’s the one thing I keep getting over 25 years in my struggle to take my reputation back from someone who purposefully destroyed it and would not stand up — and I’m listening to [Pinkett Smith] say, “Stand up and boycott the awards.” Nobody cares.
This is my way of letting loose what I feel inside as an actress who’s been blocked. The wonderful thing about the Internet is that nobody can stop you.
In the video, you say that the calls to boycott the Academy Awards are “not that deep.” What do you mean by that?
We are not brain surgeons. We are not curing cancer. We are not finding the next cure for Alzheimer's. We are simply and merely entertainment. We take on and wear the masks of characters. That's what we're paid to do. Someone like Will Smith has not come up through the ranks like most actors, so for him to be complaining the most is the most ridiculous thing I have ever seen.
So you’re not saying diversity in Hollywood isn’t an issue?
We’re all complaining about diversity in Hollywood, but we’ve got to address the colorism within the black community of Hollywood first. I’m called “dark-skinned Aunt Viv.” [Reid] is called “light-skinned Aunt Viv.” The whole ridiculousness of black Hollywood — there is no black Hollywood. It’s every man for himself. We’ve got to address that first before we can start attacking someone else’s awards that were never designed for us.
The Oscars were never designed for us. There are actors who have never gotten an Oscar and have done amazing work. If you are waiting for an award of a little ... gold statue and that’s supposed to validate you, then you're not in this business for the right reasons. We do the work. It’s about the work. It’s about taking the pages of a script and bringing them to life. It ain’t that deep. We get paid a lot of money to do very little work.
You also spoke about the peculiar position that an Oscars boycott puts less popular black actors in. Elaborate on that.
Everyone is struggling to get to where Mr. Smith and where Mrs. Jada Pinkett Smith are. I have more respect for her because she’s come through the ranks. [But] y’all are at your mansion in a gilded cage standing up there with billions of dollars in the bank. You could do more for the industry and for black Hollywood than anyone could. You could be mentoring young screenwriters. You could be setting up a program. You have the ability to do so much. You could become the new Tyler Perry. Tyler Perry is not going, “I want an Oscar.” He found his niche and we love him for that.
Are you saying that some of these top-level black people in Hollywood have lost sight of the real experience of actors?
People are dying. I have Sallie Mae bills up the ... to pay. When people come see what we do, we offer them a little escape. That's all we provide. But you can’t start believing your own press kit. And if you weren't going to stand up 25 years ago ....
They forget and start living in that big house with all that money and all that adoration. And we put these people on the pedestal, so the public has to take some blame. You created the monsters who are smiling in your face. How dare you ask other actors to jeopardize their positions. Take it from me … [I was] blacklisted. Blacklisted, truly. I couldn’t feed my child. They left me penniless, homeless and worthless. But what I always had was my dignity and I always will.
People have said you're bitter for bringing up “old stuff.” How do you respond?
Every day of my life, I’ve had to deal with "old stuff." Every time I try to move forward, somebody brings up “Fresh Prince.” Every time I walk into a room or make a phone call, somebody brings up “Fresh Prince.” I brought that story up simply to say, "You didn't stand up 25 or whatever years ago to get more money for your cast" — and I asked him as a fellow actor, not as the person who owned the show. I had no idea. I brought it up to say that if you don’t stand up all the time, you can’t pick and choose when you decide to stand up.
If you Google me, you’ll see I’ve worked with the [National Coalition on Black Civic Participation’s] Black Women's Roundtable from school to school, community center to community center, church to church. I’ve always been a warrior.
I have dealt with the ramifications of [rumors about being difficult on the “Fresh Prince” set] and I’m tired. You’re asking my fellow actors to step out and put their lives in jeopardy, and hang themselves the way you hung me. No, bro. I’m not going to let you do that. Especially when you put your woman out there to do it.
What then do you have to say regarding the broader issue of diversity in Hollywood, as it pertains to award shows?
Why do people need awards? Don’t you know your value and your worth? I don't need anybody's award or acceptance. We have a bigger problem. There needs to be huge changes in the system, but it's not our system. Let’s make our own system. But I don’t want to hear those two. When you don’t stand up for the people who helped you get your start and now you’re asking people to stand up with you, it’s ironic to me. And it’s suspect.
If I understand correctly, you’re saying diversity is an issue, but black Hollywood has its own problems?
I think the black community has a lot to work on internally with what they deem successful. Did you know NeNe Leakes made it on Broadway before Janet Hubert? Something’s wrong with the whole system of bad behavior being rewarded. I think in the black community, ratchet has became the new black, ghetto has become the new black.
Do you think any of the films this year featuring black leads deserved nominations?
When I finally sat down and got past the grittiness and ugliness of ["Beasts of No Nation"], I just got chills. Those boys deserved a nomination, but what are you going to do? They aren’t our awards. Idris Elba is perfectly pleased with his work. He’s not complaining. That’s what we do as actors. Our job is not to get awards.
What did you think of Smith in “Concussion” and what people are calling a snub?
If you’re going to take on a role with a dialect, you have got to understand the phonetics of what you’re doing. Maybe they just didn’t think it was good enough. Get over it. You got a Golden Globe nomination. You should be happy.
As actors, we know that every job you get could be your last and you’re only as good as the last job you did. You don’t ask people to step out on a limb to hang themselves. That’s what I felt like he was doing. That’s why I put the video out. That’s my truth. There is no bitterness.
They have got to get over [themselves]. You ain’t all that. You're not kings and queens. You’re not royalty. You’re simply entertainers.
Can top-level actors like …
You called them "top-level." It’s not called "top-level." They're money makers. It's all about the box office.
Those “money makers,” is there any way they could be authentic in their calls for improving diversity in representation and not self-serving?
Yes. Put up or shut up. Start a mentoring program. You’ve got to get off your horse and pass the torch. Be willing to pass the torch and understand that a candle burns down and goes out, but you light the room. With the last bit of wax, light the room.
What do you think people should take away from all of this?
That Janet Hubert is not a liar. That I speak truth and I’m not afraid to speak the truth. I’ll take the hit in doing so. I’d probably be called a snitch in the gang world but that’s because I'm always going to stand up. I’m going to look out for my fellow actor. I care. I care too much about my people.
But if you come for me, I’ll meet you at the door.
Get your life! Follow me on Twitter: @TrevellAnderson