Photo by: Jamie McCarthy/Staff
When Jasmine Guy starred in A Different World as Hillman University’s Southern belle Whitley Gilbert in the late ’80s and early ’90s, she was a vital member of one of the most popular all-Black casts of the time.
The show debuted in 1987 and featured a group of young, varied Black men and women as they attended Hillman College, a fictional historically Black university. However, by the second season, it was clear that the show’s idea was more than just highlighting Black college life and providing comedic relief in a 30-minute time slot; it was also a chance to show people of color’s real-world experiences.
“It was always a fight with them,” Guy shared as she reflected on the challenges of depicting hard-hitting narratives that would have a strong social impact.
The actress also described a time when Bill Cosby, the show’s creator, flew in to “put his foot down for the AIDS episode with NBC because they didn’t want to do it,” as Guy put it.
“They [NBC] never wanted to do anything deep that we wanted to do,” she stated.
The episode was the only one in the series to be labeled TV-MA, and it aired in 1991 during the fourth season (for mature audiences). By then, AIDS had established itself as an epidemic steeped in stigma and ignorance, which the episode intended to address head-on. In a recent interview, the 59-year-old said that getting NBC on board with the story was no simple task.
The Cosby Show’s spin-off, A Different World, pushed the edge by not shying away from themes like date rape, racism, and even politics. Regardless of how important those stories were and continue to be, getting them approved by the show’s network, NBC was no simple task.
“We were always told we stayed on the air because Cosby’s on the air,” said the actress.
“Our power was always diminished in Hollywood, to the networks, to the powers that be. We were not treated as I saw other actors treated on other hit shows,” Guy revealed.
In some ways, Guy noted, the show’s placement between the benign images of the adored Cosby family and the all-white cast of Cheers likened it to a network space filler.
While some television executives may have overlooked the show’s influence throughout its run, which lasted until July 1993, there is no doubting its long-term impact on the Black community.
Members of the cast continued to pay it forward in 2016 by assisting Historically Black Colleges and Universities in student recruitment.
It was the first time the ensemble had ever united to tour a college, despite attending the fictional Hillman College.
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