By Sunni Anderson
In the dramatic retelling Bel-Air, we now get to see our favorite characters revived for today. Former lead Will Smith executive produced the project, which is based on director Morgan Cooper’s fan-made Bel-Air trailer that went viral in 2019. It’s not just a reboot, but a reimagining for a world mediated by technology, and with a whole new generation of stars. Newcomer Jabari Banks portrays the fictional Will Smith in the reboot, which also features Adrian Holmes as Uncle Phil, Cassandra Freeman as Aunt Viv, Coco Jones as Hilary, Olly Sholotan as Carlton, and Akira Akbar as Ashley. Jimmy Akingbola, Jordan L. Jones, and Simone Joy Jones appear as Geoffrey, Jazz, and Lisa, respectively. Get to know the new Banks family below.
A fresh prince for a new generation
“I think it’s admirable that Will gave a little man a chance,” Banks tells MTV News over Zoom. “And he saw Morgan’s 2019 trailer and he was like, ‘Hey, I want to produce, I want to give this a chance, and I want to see how we can grow this.’ He could have easily been like, ‘Shut it down’ You don’t have to touch that at all. And the fact that he didn’t do that is really inspiring. Morgan did the same for me.”
The premise of Bel-Air remains similar to the sitcom from the 1990s, but the show has a considerably different tone. There is a serious twist on the old formula of a Black teen moving in with his posh relatives in the ritzy enclave of Bel-Air, Los Angeles. But there are some parallels. “There are a lot of similarities: both from Philly, first time in L.A.,” Banks continues. “[It was also] my first time in L.A. So when you see Will and Jazz looking out on Mulholland Drive and Will’s like, ‘Oh my god, this is crazy,’ a lot of that is Will, but a big part of that is Jabari, as well.”
The legacy of Uncle Phil
Viewers will watch Will adapt to his new life in Bel-Air after his well-to-do aunt and uncle take him in. As Will arrives in California, the uncertainty of his new life leaves him momentarily hopeless, but Uncle Phil reassures him that a life in Bel-Air is less to be worried about than the dangerous Philadelphia streets with which he and Will are both familiar. Adrian Holmes describes re-imagining the character, who was originally portrayed by the late actor James Avery, and paying homage to him.
“Philip Banks is a self-made man. He comes from humble beginnings and he knows what it takes to succeed,” Holmes says. “His definition of success is how well he is taking care of his family, and he’s the anchor of the family. In the original, he really was an anchor for the family, and for Will in particular, when he’s the fish out of water. He’s just a positive, affluent, high-vibrational Black man. I’m so proud to be able to play a role that is just so positive, uplifting, and hopeful, and I think that’s what we need right now in these times. And it’s a tribute to James Avery, as well.”
Cassandra Freeman notes of her co-star, “Adrian in this character is so phenomenal. And I think what he has in common with uncle Phil is this sense of people getting to feel grounded. He really is the anchor.”
Aunt Viv as “the heart of the show”
Freeman, who has been seen in popular hits like Marvel’s Luke Cage and Donald Glover’s Atlanta, and is perhaps best known for her roles in Spike Lee’s Inside Man with Denzel Washington and Chris Rock’s I Think I Love My Wife, plays Aunt Viv as a no-nonsense yet nurturing and understanding wife, mom, and aunt implying layers of discipline and dissatisfaction.
“Vivian Banks is the queen of aunties,” Freeman says. “She’s the consciousness of the show. She’s the heart of the show. She’s the warmth of the show. And she also, in this version, is an artist who’s been put on mute, and hopefully, throughout the season, you see her come back to her love of being a visual artist.”
A different and driven Carlton
Fitting in isn’t easy for Will, especially as his arrival provokes jealousy from his cousin Carlton, a popular lacrosse player at his high school — very serious and a lot less sweet than his predecessor. The series examines each of Will’s familial relationships, but the differences between him and Carlton show that, while they may be cousins, they may not necessarily be friends. From the beginning of the series, Will doesn’t think Carlton cares about his Black culture enough, while Carlton doesn’t hold back on reminding Will where he came from.
“Carlton’s a driven young man,” Sholotan says of his character. “He really struggles with this concept of not feeling like he belongs to his community and how he navigates that. There are lots of issues with Blackness and the idea of Blackness, and how his whole life, he’s been told that he talks white, he acts white. And I just think the most beautiful thing about Carlton is, at the end of the day, we see this 16-year-old kid who’s just trying to belong and deal with his anxiety and grow up.”
The original Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was highly influential for its portrayal of complex Black identities, not often seen on TV in its time. In addition, the sitcom explored the social and cultural differences among Black people, a theme that is still relevant today.
Hilary Banks, the influencer
“I think we’re just a lot more daring in our storylines, a lot more transparent and raw and honest,” Coco Jones tells MTV News. “In a way that, in 2022, you kind of have to be because there’s so much media out there that, if we don’t tap into what’s really going on in the lives of our youth, they won’t be interested… Our goal was to take these characters and to make them captivating to the people that are our age.”
Coco Jones’s portrayal of Hilary is a complete transformation from the ditzy, self-absorbed teen of the ’90s. “Hilary is determined, she’s headstrong, she’s a fashionista for sure,” Jones says. “But she’s also a chef, she’s also a content creator, she’s also an influencer, she’s a boss. The actress also infuses the character with her magnetism and wit, making Hilary more modern and relevant for the times. “She has a set path that she sees for her life. And regardless of it, if that looks unrealistic to some. If it looks like she wouldn’t fit, for whatever those goals are, she’s trying to achieve, she’s going to get them anyway.”
Ashley’s enduring wisdom
Hilary immediately captures the attention of viewers she’s dressed to impress with chic clothing and killer accessories when she appears on screen, embodying the natural essence of a confident, young Black woman. This is also important for Ashley Banks, played by Akira Akbar, who is the youngest of the bunch at 12 years old and admires her big sister. The actress shares some of her favorite characteristics about Ashley, cute and whip-smart.
“Ashley, she’s a very smart, poise young lady. She is really wise beyond her years, but she’s the baby of the family. And I just feel like she has to know a lot, and that really, she does know a lot. That’s why she’s wise above her years because she knows all about politics and global warming and all that.”
For longtime Fresh Prince fans, the first season of Bel-Air also contains references to the original. “It’s going to be so exciting to watch,” Banks says. It’s going to be all of the characters we know and love, but we just go in-depth with them. We’re bringing them back for a new generation, but there’s a lot of callbacks to the original, a lot of Easter eggs. So, be prepared for that.”
In the show, Holmes adds, “We dive deeper into the conflicts and all the issues that they explored in the original show. We were able to stretch it out and we’re able to peel back the layers and really get more into the origin stories of these characters. So, as nostalgic as the original characters are, you’re still going to get that through us, but you’re also going to get to go deeper.”
- The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air