Culture

‘Bel-Air’ Wants To Be More Than ‘Fresh Prince’ Nostalgia — And, So Far, It’s Promising

Bel-Air, the dramatic reboot of the beloved Fresh Prince of Bel-Air series, debuts with its first three episodes on Super Bowl Sunday.

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is a classic — there’s no debating that. Its endless reruns on BET and other networks prove it. But when filmmaker Morgan Cooper posted his reimagining of it as a drama on social media back in 2019, the response was so positive that Will Smith stepped up to help make it happen, turning the fan project into a full-fledged production. Now, three years later, the Bel-Air reboot is one of the most buzzed about shows of the season, with the highly anticipated series making its debut with its first three episodes on Super Bowl Sunday.

When the trailer first dropped for the reboot, Cooper spoke on how his reimagining of the original would allow a deeper dive into its characters and themes, saying: “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.”

That’s evident in the series’ first three episodes, which might be too dark and serious for some who long for the lighthearted and comedic tone of the original. In it, Will (played by fresh face newcomer Jabari Banks) is winning in life as a star basketball player headed to a D1 school, with his loving mother Vy (April Parker Jones) and loyal best friend Tray (Stevonte Hart) by his side. When jealous tensions spill over on a basketball court, guns get involved and Will faces a possible criminal record and — worse yet — potentially losing his life at the hands of a West Philly drug dealer. Coming to his rescue is his uncle (and big-time attorney) Phil Banks (Adrian Holmes). To keep him safe, his mother sends him off to Bel-Air to live with his uncle Phil and aunt Vivian (Cassandra Freeman), where he encounters completely new tensions and challenges. 

In Bel-Air, Uncle Phil is campaigning to become district attorney, with Vivian (an art professor who has abandoned her career as an artist) supporting him.Photo Credit: Greg Gayne/Peacock

Out in Bel-Air, Phil is campaigning to become district attorney, with Vivian (an art professor who has abandoned her career as an artist) supporting him. His cousins Hillary (Coco Jones), a food influencer and budding chef, and Ashley (Akira Akbar) are excited to see him, but their brother Carlton (Olly Sholotan) is not. The big man at school, tensions between Carlton and Will worsen when Will connects with Carlton’s ex Lisa (Simone Joy Jones). Jazz (Jordan L. Jones) is the rideshare driver from Compton turned friend for Will, and Geoffrey (Jimmy Akingbola) is more like a G than a butler. 

Melanin is one of the most notable adjustments Bel-Air makes, with Will arguably being the lightest person in the family. This is not to throw colorist shade to the original. Instead, it’s significant because a Black family of darker complexion stands out on TV. While making the family noticeably melanated absolutely serves as a corrective that helps normalize actors of darker skin complexions in leading roles, it also helps to focus attention on class tensions, which is so often ignored when colorism comes into play. For example, even though Carlton is darker than Will, their tensions don’t stem from that. Instead, their clash exposes stereotypes surrounding Black men. Carlton is captain of the school’s lacrosse team while Will excels in basketball. Also, Will is absolutely steeped in Black culture, while Carlton, through his schooling at predominantly white schools, is isolated from it. As attracting the Black vote becomes more important to his father’s campaign, that issue is further exposed and expanded on through Phil’s experiences. So, while Carlton is isolated from the Black community because he’s grown up wealthy, Phil, who rose from humble origins in North Carolina, is being accused of abandoning it after obtaining wealth. With increasingly more public conversations about the wealth gap between white and Black Americans (and discourse around class divisions among Black Americans), the series tackling ideas of class and race right from the jump is timely.

Melanin is one of the most notable adjustments Bel-Air makes, with Will arguably being the lightest person in the family. Photo Credit: Evans Vestal Ward/Peacock

But the show also seems like it’ll explore themes like mental health, too, particularly through Carlton. Although Twitter chatter will likely be dominated by Carlton being perceived as a “coon” when the series drops, the show also hints at Carlton’s fragile mental health, especially as it relates to his need to fit in even at the expense of his own cultural identity. This is only made worse by his drug addiction (which feels like a darker reinterpretation of the original’s “Just Say Yo” episode), which goes undetected by his family and worsens as he begins to feel pushed to the side amid Will’s presence. 

These larger themes also extend to the women of the Banks family, specifically the relationship between Vivian and her daughter Hillary. Vivian is not happy about Hillary dropping out of college to pursue her culinary ambitions, especially through something as intangible as social media. There is absolutely a chasm between what Vivian’s generation and Hillary’s generation sees as work. That Bel-Air has chosen to explore these generational strains through Black women is especially refreshing, particularly when they use this story arc to compare and contrast generational responses to racism (particularly career or workplace racism). As far as the first three episodes show, Ashley is underutilized. But hopefully in time she will get a storyline that makes new revelations about Black girlhood.

Bel-Air might be light on the laughs (for now) but its mission to raise new questions about Blackness and Black culture, as well as the challenges more financially stable Black families face, trumps that. One of the key points that the HBO Max Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Reunion documentary made was how heavily the cast worked with a predominantly white writing staff to ensure that issues that were important to them as Black people would not be missed. Thirty years later, that is no longer the case as is evident with this reboot. If anything, Bel-Air shows how today’s Black creatives (particularly outsiders like Cooper) are taking charge of the medium and expanding the conversations beyond the “acceptable” Black conversations. With Will Smith, who has lived a lot of the stages explored in the show, as a cosign, Bel-Air promises to bring a lot more than nostalgia or kee-kees to today’s Black TV.

TV put a move on Ronda Racha Penrice’s heart around age three and never let go. As a grown-up, the Chicago native with deep Mississippi roots and ATL zip code, has covered TV for a number of publications including EBONY, OkayAfrica, theGrio, The Root, ESSENCE, NBC Think, Zora, and Upscale. Her book, Black American History For Dummies, features an entire Black TV chapter. Plus, she’s the editor of Cracking The Wire During Black Lives Matter, a book of essays exploring the iconic HBO show as it turns 20, out January 25, 2022. 

Ronda Racha Penrice

TV put a move on Ronda Racha Penrice’s heart around age three and never let go. As a grown-up, the Chicago native with deep Mississippi roots and ATL zip code, has covered TV for a number of publications including EBONY, OkayAfrica, theGrio, The Root, ESSENCE, NBC Think, Zora, and Upscale. Her book, Black American History For Dummies, features an entire Black TV chapter. Plus, she’s the editor of Cracking The Wire During Black Lives Matter, a book of essays exploring the iconic HBO show as it turns 20, out January 25, 2022.

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