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Bel-Air may share creative DNA with The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, but the dramatic reboot of Will Smith's '90s sitcom is taking its inspiration from the present, not the past. The first three episodes — which are currently streaming on Peacock — feature plot threads that touch on up-to-the-minute issues within America's Black communities, including code-switching, cultural appropriation on social media and the class divide between the haves and have-nots.
One of Bel-Air's boldest pieces of social commentary, though, involves how the show was cast rather than any specific storyline. Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment, executive producer Rasheed Newson — who serves as showrunner alongside T.J. Brady — describes how the show's creative team sought to confront Hollywood's colorism problem that's previously plagued movies like Jon M. Chu's adaptation of In the Heights and such TV shows as HBO Max's Gossip Girl revival.
"We're putting a show together about a Black family," Newson explains, referring to the extended Banks clan, who welcome their West Philadelphia born-and-raised relative Will (Jabari Banks) into their lavish Bel-Air home after he runs afoul of a couple of guys who were up to no good. "These parents have to look like they, they made these children. So we had to have a very honest discussion about what complexion are Viv and Phil, and how does that manifest itself into the kids? And we chose that we're gonna have a family with a darker complexion." (Watch our interview above.)
The prevalence of lighter-skinned minority representation in film and television has been much discussed in the press and on social media. In fact, even before Bel-Air's debut, Twitter noted positively how the modern-day Banks family differs from their '90s counterparts.
The fact that Bel-Air has an all chocolate cast 😍😍😍😩 not just dark skinned aunt Viv
— Your Future Favorite Director 💙 (@Queen_Dhat_Baby) January 12, 2022
That Bel-Air trailer is looking real good. I love that the Banks family are all dark-skinned Black people. I love the modernness of the show. I might have to get Peacock in order to watch this. pic.twitter.com/Yn0HckF2Qd
— Shayla 🥰🤎✨ (@shayborninmay) January 10, 2022
the bel-air reboot is majority dark skinned people, no mad bitter people can ruin this for me cause i really use to pray for times like this pic.twitter.com/8dTurjjczc
— ma city (@blkmaaze) September 14, 2021
Still, those colorism conversations have been slower to happen within the industry itself. And Newson indicates that it was initially a touchy subject inside the Bel-Air offices as well. "It was one of those issues that, at first, people wanted to talk around," he remembers. "But it was like, 'Guys, if this is going to make sense, we need to confront this and we need to make a decision.'"
Naturally, Bel-Air creator Morgan Cooper — who directed the viral 2019 short film that caught Smith's eye and inspired the series — played a key role in making that decision. "It's important for us to really interrogate some of the past biases that we've seen onscreen," he notes. "Saying like, 'This shade of Black is better than this shade just because this shade is lighter.' We're here to throw all of that nonsense out the window and say Black is beautiful, period. We don't just talk the talk, we walked the walk."
Once the creative team collectively chose to populate the Banks family with dark-skinned actors, that served as their North Star in the casting process. Adrian Holmes and Cassandra Freeman ultimately landed the roles of Philip and Vivian Banks, while Olly Sholotan, Coco Jones and Akira Akbar play their three children — Carlton, Hilary and Ashley, respectively. "It made it a very interesting way to cast because you were almost holding back to see everybody and then go, 'OK, who makes a family here?'" Newson says. "But I think it turned out very well."
For their part, Holmes and Freeman are proud to be the patriarch and matriarch of a TV family that's challenging Hollywood casting conventions. "It's beautiful to see a dark-skinned Black family onscreen that's affluent, successful and thriving," Holmes says. "We want to tell a story that people can watch and say, 'Oh, that's like my family.' We're showing that it's a full spectrum of the Black experience. We need to tell more positive Black stories, and they have to be done truthfully. In order for that to happen, we have to make them ourselves... and this is an example of that."
Freeman adds that the issue of colorism will be addressed within the world of Bel-Air as well as on future episodes. "There's a whole discussion in the show about what it means to be Black and not be Black or to be white and not be white. It's important to have a nice spectrum of different sides of who we are... and it's truthful. It's not fantasy — it's just real."
Cooper says that reality sure felt an awful lot like fantasy when the real Smith's representatives called him less than a day after his Bel-Air short went viral. "I thought they were about to serve me paperwork to sue my ass," he says, laughing. Instead, they arranged a meeting with the Fresh Prince himself in Miami where Cooper pitched him turning the trailer into on a one-hour drama. "We shook hands, decided to get into business together and make it happen — and we did."
Finding the right actors to play the Banks family wasn't the creative team's only casting challenge: An even bigger task was finding the new Will Smith. Enter West Philly native, Jabari Banks, who impressed the showrunners in his first audition. But Newson admits that he still had some reservations. "I will go on record as saying that I was a little nervous, because he did not have any professional experience. He was in theater school, and I thought, "Are we going to put this show on the shoulders of someone with no credits?"
Banks says he was aware throughout the audition process that his lack of screen credits might be a dealbreaker. But he always saw the endgame in his mind's eye. "I always knew it was me," he says humbly. "I just had to lock in and believe that if there's something you want, if you ask for it the universe is going to bring it your way. That's something that I always told myself before I booked this role, and I always felt I was ready in that moment."
While the original Fresh Prince doesn't make a cameo appearance in Bel-Air (at least... not yet), the cast and crew says that Smith provided plenty of creative input and lent his spirit to the production. "He has his hands in every aspect of the show," says Sholotan. "He's approving scripts, and his company has put a lot of support behind us." Cooper agrees, adding that the King Richard star was always "one text away" whenever they needed him. "He's so full of wisdom and is so selfless with that wisdom. He's seen it all in this business and has [climbed] every mountaintop you can possibly imagine."
It goes without saying that Smith formed a particularly close bond with the actor who picked up the Fresh Prince crown. "He's taught me a lot," Banks confirms. "He's been telling me that it's gonna be a lot of ups and a lot of downs [in my career] and through it all to just stay grounded. I'm just so thankful to know him — he's one of of a kind, he truly is."
Watch Banks's first in-person meeting with Smith below:
And if Smith ever does have time in his busy schedule to swing by the Banks mansion, his protege already has a role in mind for him. "It'd be interesting to see him as my dad," Banks suggests. We can't wait to see that tale from Bel-Air.
Bel-Air is currently streaming on Peacock.
— Video produced by Jen Kucsak and edited by John Santo