On the Mount Rushmore of classic Black sitcoms, The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air occupies a Lincoln or Washington-esque presence. Will Smith and Quincy Jones introduced us to the Banks family on NBC in 1990 and it immediately became a smash hit, dominating the ratings and providing laughs until it’s conclusion in 1996. Whether it’s the “Carlton dance,” or the chart-topping theme song, The Fresh Prince has left a lasting cultural imprint on American audiences and become a heralded piece of ‘90’s culture. The beloved property has been immortalized in music, internet memes and modern fashion. And the adoration for the property sparked a highly acclaimed reunion special on HBO Max.
So, when Peacock announced they were rebooting the series and taking inspiration from visual artist Morgan Cooper’s viral short film, the news came with mixed reactions. Some were skeptical of the grittier tone. Others are fatigued by reboots altogether, and feel Fresh Prince is too sacred of a property to touch.
The visionaries behind the new series, Bel-Air, streaming on Peacock February 13, understand the challenge and are confident audiences will enjoy what’s being billed as a “contemporary dramatic reimagining” of the original Will Smith story. The network is confident too, picking up the series for two seasons before it even premieres. EBONY was one of a select few outlets to be invited on the Bradbury, California set for a behind the scenes look at the vibrant and ambitious new project.
It all started with a short film in 2019. Kansas City’s own Morgan Cooper thought up a darker and more grounded take on the goofy ‘90’s sitcom.
“When ideas hit me, it all comes at once,” said Cooper, sitting with us on an unexpectedly chilly California day outside of the new Banks residence. “I made a call to my producer, put up the money to make a short, and here we are.”
The video was visually striking, and served as a thought provoking proof of concept that caught the attention of the masses, and eventually Will Smith.
“He's like, ‘what are you trying to do?’ I'm like, ‘I'm trying to make it. I see it as a one hour drama.’ I flew down to Miami to talk about development and we shook hands and got into it.”
Now, Cooper’s idea has been fully realized. Much like its predecessor, Bel-Air follows the story of “west Philadelphia born and raised” Will, who moves in with his wealthy Bel-Air relatives for a better education. But this time around, he’s also dealing with the fallout from a gun possession charge, and on the run from Philadelphia gang members, “a couple of guys up to no good.” It’s a crucial and depth defining aspect carried over from Cooper’s original short.
“We were helped out a lot by the trailer Morgan put online to set the tone in the field,” said T.J. Brady, co-executive producer and showrunner. “So it's not like we're starting from nothing or grasping in the dark. So that was a big advantage to keep that visual template tone.”
“We wanted to create a show that stands on its own while honoring the spirit and innovation of the original series,” said Cooper. “Because ‘Bel-Air’ is a drama, we're able to really peel back the layers of these characters and themes in a way that you simply couldn't do 30 years ago in the half-hour sitcom format.”
“Bel-Air” will use the extended runtime to wade into hot button modern day issues like criminal justice, police brutality and racism.
“It was a group decision,” said Rasheed Newson, co-executive producer and showrunner. “There was a question of like, ‘Hey, do you want to be aspirational? Are we showing the world as we wish it was? Are we showing the world as it is?’ We have opted to show the world as it is.”
“We're able to go have tough conversations that challenge perspectives,” said Cooper. “At its core, ‘Bel-Air’ is a celebration of the black experience through the perspective of a family… it's real, and we don't see those things enough. It's not just trapping and nonsense. There's a lot of love. And so, I think, despite the budget, and all the toys and stuff that you get with a big budget, it’s just staying true to the intimacy of these moments.”
There’s a number of interesting updates to these characters to reflect the times. Uncle Phil was a republican judge in the ‘90’s sitcom. Now, he’s a liberal attorney running for public office.
“That was a deliberate choice,” said Newson. “That's sort of that old dichotomy of well, if you're rich, you must have sold out along the way. It's not true.”
“What we did was sort of extrapolate a few things when it comes to Phil's campaign,” said Brady. “We see the conversation around Black candidates running for office policing, and how to talk about that. We've seen some things reflected in the past election that we extrapolated forward.”
Geoffrey, the wise cracking butler, is now more of a suave, debonair and sharply dressed assistant, played with precision by Jimmy Akingbola.
“When I got the audition that was sort of in the small print,” remembered Akingbola, who took some time between filming for a quick chat. “They wanted Geoffrey with swagger. And I was like, ‘Well, that's a completely different Geoffrey. But actually, I saw if you're going to do a new chapter of this classic culture defining sitcom, it has to be this way.”
“That's the essence of the top boy. That he's not a butler. We didn't feel like that's right in 2022.”
The Hilary Banks of the past was ditzy, spoiled and laughably materialistic. Bel-Air’s Hilary is more layered with ambition, an entrepreneurial mindset and a large social media following.
“I would say for me, I think the goal is to make Hillary more of a down to earth relatable type of character,” said Coco Jones, who plays Hilary Banks in the new drama. “I think it was really important to keep my character grounded. She's a go-getter. She's a hustler. She's a chef. She's a content creator. She's a CEO. So I feel like she will gravitate towards the girls who are running their lip gloss companies and their lash companies, because she's one of those girls where she's like, my way is not the conventional way. And this hasn't been done before, but it's going to get done.”
And “she’s going to look flawless doing it,” according to Jones. The character will maintain the passion for fashion that made Karyn Parsons’ Hilary so popular, with intentionality in the outfits she’ll be rocking.
‘It was a conscious effort to include Black designers,” said Jones. “We have a lot of Brandon Blackwood. It's a goal to try to include at least one piece, if we can, in every look. Stylists reached out to a couple of people who just create from scratch, and they created some pieces specifically for Hilary. So I think it was a conscious effort to just bring that culture as many ways as we can, since this is such a culturally iconic show.”
Olly Sholotan’s take on Carlton won’t be swinging his arms and hips to Tom Jones. Instead, he’ll be wrestling with identity and the challenges of being a Black face in a white space.
“The backbone of Carlton in this version is the idea of ‘What does blackness mean?” explained Sholotan. “The idea that when you get richer, or when you dress a certain way, or when you speak a certain type of way, it sort of removes you from your blackness, right? And how the world sees you. And I think that's something that I would say every Black person, every aspirational Black person has dealt with, at some point where someone says, ‘Oh, well, you don't want to be Black like us anymore. You think you're better than us, yada, yada, yada.’ And I think that that speaks to such a universal Black experience that is representative of what the show does.”
“If the original ‘Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’ was the story from a male's perspective, this version is the story as if you're reading each and every character's diaries.”
The youngest Banks sibling, Ashley, keeps the same spirit of wonder and curiosity from the ‘90’s, but embodies the progressiveness of the current generation of teenagers.
“I'm just excited for people to see Ashley in a new way,” said Akira Akbar, who plays Ashley Banks in “Bel-Air.”
“She deals with more modern day problems that a lot of teenagers are dealing with now. And it's just different from old Ashley because of the way that she deals with these problems.”
Even love interest Lisa Wilkes carries over to “Bel-Air.” She was played by Nia Long in 1995. Now, Simone Joy Jones takes a spin at it.
“I think Lisa is someone who feels familiar,” said Jones. “But in a way that feels like home and it feels like something that just feels really good to the soul. I feel like she’s a little bit of soul food in a place that's just like, very plastic.”
And a new take on Will’s sidekick and friend Jazz will be portrayed by Snowfall’s Jordan L. Jones.
“I'm more of like a Jiminy Cricket. I’m his reminder of home. You know, his family is so drastically different. He is trying to get acclimated into this new Bel-Air lifestyle. Even though I'm not from Philly, we have similar life experiences. So I'm the one who always kind of gives him a little extra advice that he needs if he’s going to last.”
Of course, the series is nothing without its hip, wise-cracking main character, Will, a role Will Smith shaped in the ‘90’s to emulate his own life. Newcomer Jabari Banks now carries the mantle and shares a lot in common with the Golden Globe nominee. Just like Smith, Banks is a real life musician who hails from the city of brotherly love.
“He won our hearts in the same way he won this role,” said Brady. “Our creative team, including Will Smith, recognized that Jabari embodied the talent, charisma, and sheer swagger necessary to make this iconic role his own."
Smith was integral in the casting of Banks. He surprised the young actor with the news of his casting in a viral video back in September.
“It's been life-changing,” said Banks on the Bradbury set. “It's really been an incredible opportunity to be able to chat with Will and to just pick his brain.”
“He told me ‘I'm going to be to you what Quincy Jones was to me.’ Oh my god, I was like, that's real, to be able to carry that legacy. That's huge.”
Banks says his take on Will is partially inspired by his own life experiences, which helped him develop the character.
“We grew up in a similar place; I live with my uncle actually. Family situations are similar. And you know, people told me I kind of have a similar look to [Will Smith]. So, in that way, I've been connected to him and he's been a huge influence on me in my life and how I grew up and the way that I approach my work, and just how I approach my life in general.”
“The world's going to know about Jabari for years and years to come,” said Cooper. “He's just so versatile as an actor and can do so many different things. He has natural charisma, natural comedic timing, his dramatic chops are exceptional. And he's only done a short film. And now he's number one on the call sheet.”
Unlike most new shows to hit streaming, the cast list is low on big names. That’s a purposeful choice from Cooper, Brady, Newson and Bel-Air casting directors.
“Something that we were always aligned on was just choosing the best actors who were right for these roles versus like, names,” said Cooper. “Who brought the spirit of the character and aligned with the vision versus like, let's just get a name just to get a name. I'm blown away by the cast that we landed.”
Music plays a heavy role in the series, featuring music from Robert Glasper and Terrace Martin, a soundtrack of modern hits and some cultural deep cuts. Before even having a cast, Cooper took a unique approach to developing his reimagined “Fresh Prince” characters, creating 50-song Spotify playlists for each.
“I feel like if you know what somebody listens to, you can get a very good feel for the tone of a character. My hope was just to create a visual landscape that lends itself through the emotional subtext, through the scenes. Finding what are those things that not only have a cultural impact, but from a character perspective, really, really touch you at a deep place in your heart.”
One noticeable difference from the original series is the sense of place. Whereas Fresh Prince never showed its main character in Philadelphia or included much of his life in the city, Bel-Air will spend more time there, and have some cameos from local icons.
“Philly was something that we really wanted to make sure we represented really well,” said Cooper. “I just wanted to pay respect to that community and even the people who make appearances.”
Instead of filming Philadelphia based scenes on an LA soundstage or in a lot, Cooper pushed production to actually step into West Philadelphia communities to further bolster the narrative’s authenticity.
“I still remember the first day on 16th street on the bike,” recalled Cooper. “We walk up to the very first shoot on the very first day and I just remember the whole community came out. And they felt so much love. And I'm like, ‘That's why I do it.’ You know what I mean? For them to be seen, because people should be seen and feel honored.”
Ultimately, Bel-Air’s success will hinge on how audiences across the country see themselves in the narrative, and their ability to connect to its familiar story with a grounded and modern approach.
“I mean this is just like a story about a guy being thrown into a world that he doesn’t fit in. It’s a fish out of water story, and some people can recognize that and relate to that,” said Banks. “We really get to see excellence on screen in a new form, with new fashion and it's fresh, you know what I mean? And I think people are going to like that a lot.”