March 17, 2022
Authentic. That was the word that actor Jabari Banks and director Morgan Cooper kept coming back to during a recent interview when describing how they went about creating "Bel-Air" – the dramatic reboot of "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air."
Whether it was where certain scenes were filmed, the actors hired to reimagine the 90s sitcom's iconic characters or what issues that "Bel-Air" sought to address, Banks and Cooper said that it was all about creating an original product rather than a duplication of the show's predecessor.
"Jabari and I, since day one, this was all about creating something from an honest place," Cooper said. "This wasn't an idea that was born in some executive board room in Hollywood. This came from a very honest place."
As a result, it took time and initiative for "Bel-Air" to become a reality. And maybe a little luck, too.
An aspiring filmmaker from Kansas City, Missouri, Cooper had a vision he was determined to bring to life.
He wanted to reimagine "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," a show he grew up watching reruns of on TV, but he envisioned a drama that delved deeper into Will Smith's journey from West Philadelphia to Los Angeles.
But Cooper couldn't just walk into a Hollywood executive's office and pitch the project. He had to create something first to show people what was possible.
So with a $25,000 budget and a team of local actors, Cooper took six months to film a teaser for "Bel-Air" at locations in Kansas City and Burbank, California. He published the trailer on YouTube with the hope that it could serve as the basis for a feature film.
The trailer quickly went viral and three years later, it's been viewed by more than 7.5 millions people. Among those who watched was the Fresh Prince himself – Will Smith.
The West Philly native's production company, Westbrook Studios, reached out to Cooper to see where he wanted to take his project. Smith was on board with bringing Cooper's vision to life.
Cooper and Smith took the idea out to market and shopped it around to the likes of Netflix and HBO Max, where "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" is available to stream. But it was NBCUniversal's Peacock that ordered two seasons of "Bel-Air" in August 2020. It was on NBC where "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" originally aired for six seasons from 1990-1996.
The sitcom's team of creators and producers – Andy and Susan Borowtiz, Quincy Jones and Benny Medina – signed on and gave Cooper their blessing. So did the original show's cast when they met Cooper at HBO Max's "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" reunion in 2020.
"I was at the filming of the reunion for HBO and sitting with the original cast and Daphne (Reid) looking at me and saying, 'We're passing you the baton,'" Cooper said. "In that moment, it was so transformative and I looked around. I saw them and thinking about it now makes me emotional because they trusted me with this vision, and I took that very seriously. I've always wanted that responsibility."
Maybe the biggest question facing "Bel-Air" was finding out who would follow Will Smith in playing the fictionalized Will Smith. Those would be big shoes to fill, but the process would lead the show's producers to another actor and musician from West Philly.
Like Cooper, Jabari Banks grew up watching "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" with his family. Banks, however, admitted that he was a bit skeptical at first of the dramatic reboot until he watched Cooper's teaser.
"I watched (the trailer) and I was like, 'Oh I get it. I get it. I'm definitely down,'" Banks said. "As a super 'Fresh Prince' fan, I loved it and understood the concept and why we could bring it back for our generation. I had no clue that I was gonna be a part of it."
Banks said he looked up to Smith growing up and saw portraying an updated Fresh Prince character as an opportunity.
"I thought (trying out for the character of Will) would be an amazing opportunity to get to bring this character back to life for a new generation," Banks said. "Because I admired Will (Smith, the actor) so much growing up that I wanted to be that person for the new generation. Just inspire kids who look like me and open up doors for people who look like me who don't really have the opportunity that other kids have. The fact that I get to do this through this project is great. As soon as I got the call, I knew it was me. I just had to prove it to everybody else."
Casting director Victoria Thomas had alerted Cooper and the show's producers to Banks, who at the time was attending The University of the Arts in Philadelphia.
When the show's producers met Banks, they realized there was something special about him. Cooper said within minutes of meeting him that he felt like he had found his man to play Will.
"Jabari's swag, his charisma, his energy, his body control, his star power, the whole idea was to like put that out there for the world to see and the fact that (Banks) brought that to this iconic role is pretty remarkable," Cooper said.
Most importantly, the Fresh Prince himself approved of his "Bel-Air" successor. Smith broke the good news to Banks on a video call last August.
Smith and Banks actually have a lot in common. Both are actors and musicians with roots in West Philly. Smith was born and raised in West Philly, while Banks' real-life Uncle Phil resides in the neighborhood.
But Banks knew that he had to approach the Will character differently than Smith did more than 30 years ago.
"I knew that I couldn't play Will Smith like Will Smith," Banks said. "I had to play Will like Jabari. When you think about the original characters, James Avery wasn't trying to be James Earl Jones or whatever. He was just trying to be James Avery as Uncle Phil. That's why we loved them. They were just bringing their flavors and their authentic selves to the characters. So that's how I had to approach it. Morgan definitely gave me notes just to lean into that. Will did the same. At that point, I knew where to go. I knew where to run. At the end of the day, with this show, I feel like we're blazing our own trail. I feel like it was important that I brought myself to the role."
"It makes the art better," Cooper added. "That's the thing about it. When you try to put actors in a box, you can't be the original Will Smith because there's only one Will Smith. There's only one James Avery. There's only one Karyn Parsons. The list goes on with that entire cast. So it's like, 'What is the spirit of that character?' I want you to take it, make it your own and elevate it through your superpowers."
"Bel-Air" made its debut on Peacock last month; NBC promoted it's premier heavily during the network's Super Bowl coverage.
The first episode starts with a more detailed – and more realistic – depiction of the events that led to the Fresh Prince moving in with his aunt and uncle in Bel-Air:
After a tense pickup basketball game at a West Philly playground turns into an all-out brawl, Will pulls a gun on a neighborhood drug dealer whom he had just punch minutes earlier. Then cops show up and Will is caught with the handgun. So he finds himself in jail and the dealer clearly is not going to let what happened on the playground slide.
Philip Banks, a powerful lawyer running for Los Angeles District Attorney, comes to the rescue, makes some calls and uses his connections to get his nephew out of jail. That seems to solve Will's legal problems but there's still the angry drug drug dealer. The only solution is to put him on plane to California.
In Southern California, Will struggles to acclimate to his new life among the wealthy. While he finds success joining his new high school's basketball team, he struggles to make friends and fit in under the shadow of his cousin, Carlton.
While the original show hit on serious themes through comedic plots, "Bel-Air" addresses topics, like race, policing, class and mental health in a more direct manner. This was a prerequisite for making the show authentic, Banks and Cooper said.
"I don't feel like it was ever easier, I feel like it was more necessary in the time that we're living in," Banks said. "It's a reflection of our world and in order to be authentic, we had to hit those points. Through that, it was key that we had the conversations that we have throughout the show. We talk about class, we talk about race, we talk about what it means to be successful and Black, what it means to be successful in general. What does that look like? It means to be a fish out of water. So these are universal themes that we all recognize and know we definitely had to tackle."
"When you approach these subjects through the prism of character, it's always going to feel authentic," Cooper said. "You can't talk about the Black experience without addressing these things because it's a reflection of our existence. It would be disingenuous if we tried to duck our heads in the sand and say, 'These things don't happen. Let's paint this fantasy that it isn't real.' We don't want to be the show that stands on the soapbox and is trying to preach. Who is the authentic version of these characters and what comes out of that in terms of story really is a reflection of the world."
While most of "Bel-Air" is set and filmed in Southern California, the show isn't possible without its Philly roots.
Cooper said that the production team wanted to film scenes in Philly to show Will's life before he's whisked away. Viewers get to see Will, his friends and his mom walking in West Philly – including recognizable locations below the Market-Frankford Line stop at 60th and Market streets.
"I think that's what makes our show special was we get to really see Will's life before he left," Cooper said. "That was always something, when you think about 'The Fresh Prince,' (Will leaving Philly) drops in that pilot and he's knocking on the door of the Bel-Air mansion. They don't really unpack outside of the theme song what happened. And so you take that scenario and you get to see Will's life. Not just the challenges he goes through, but the love of that community, the swagger, the energy, the flavor of that community. Philly is just so vibrant and has such a specific culture, so it was really important to us to not just the visualizations, but the sounds, the language, the music that you hear, the actors that we cast. It felt very authentically Philly."
Through six episodes, "Bel-Air" is not short on Easter eggs and nods to Philly culture, like Will's regular use of the words "jawn" and "bul."
"I know that we have an incredible writers room and collaborators that allowed us to put our flavor on the words we were using," Banks said. "They would write it down in this sort of way ... and I was like, 'Oh, I understand what you're trying to say but flip it to sort of make it make sense in my head.' It is very Philly. It was very key and everyone was very meticulous on what we were doing and where we were, how we were talking, what we were wearing and the feel of Philly."
The city has embraced "Bel-Air" in different ways since the show started. Banks and Cooper rang the bell before the Sixers-Cavaliers game on March 4, and street artist Alloyius Mcilwaine designed a new mural depicting Banks as his character Will that will hang in Terminal E at Philadelphia International Airport for six months.
Banks said Philly will always be home for him and has thought about getting himself a place in Old City. The actor said his uncle still lives in West Philly, and Banks is finishing up his coursework online at The University of the Arts.
With more than half of the first season's 10 episodes already released, Banks and Cooper said reaction to "Bel-Air" so far has been strong.
"There's been so much love over the product and what we've created and I think it's amazing," Banks said. "I think people were definitely skeptical coming in, but it really overjoys me to know that (people) have moved past that and accepted us and they see that what we've created stands on its own."
"Our heart was in the right place when we made (the show)," Cooper said. "I think people really feel like that when they watch our show, that there's sincerity."
When it comes to "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" fans who haven't bought into the reboot, Cooper said can't twist their arms to watch.
"It's not our job as artists to convince people what to watch," Cooper said. "I would just say, 'Listen, give it a shot. Give it a chance. Know that it came from an honest place.' That's art. Sometimes watching this might not be everyone's cup of tea, but it's important for us to create it honestly. This came from an honest place. I would tell anybody out there to give it a shot and just know that it came from a real place."
Filming for Season 2 of "Bel-Air" hasn't started yet, but Cooper said that the writing process is well underway.
"Lot of different ideas are in the cooker right now, and so myself and our fantastic show-runners and our fantastic producers team, we're all huddled up and mapping out the story," Cooper said. "Just know that it's full of twists and turns. It's gonna be a wild ride and the potential of this show is immense and a big part of that is because of how incredible this cast is. They can do anything we throw at them. They're ready to do it. It's just the beginning, so stay tuned."