Cassandra Freeman, Adrian Holmes, Jabari Banks, Olly Sholotan, Coco Jones, Akira Akbar and Jimmy Akingbola of Bel-Air.
When Will Smith — the fictional Will Smith, that is, protagonist of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air — arrived at his auntie and uncle's house from West Philadelphia in 1990, he might have been dodging a bullet both metaphorical and literal. The show, based on the life of Hollywood exec and producer Benny Medina, never painted an entirely vivid picture of the world Will left behind for posh Bel-Air, but as the theme song suggests, Will's mom had every right to be scared for her son.
Crack reached epidemic proportions in Philadelphia between 1989 and 1991. Dozens of blocks served as open-air drug markets, and it was common for dealers to recruit adolescents and teens, boys Will's age. Jobs were nonexistent and drive-by shootings common. NBC introduced twenty-two-year-old rap star Will Smith to Americans at 8 p.m. on Monday, September 10; by year's end, a record 500 people had been killed in Philadelphia.
"When I left Philly for L.A.," Smith says, "there was a lot going on in my life. I was hanging with drug dealers." As he recalls in his recently released memoir, Will, the friend who gave him $10,000 so he could leave Philadelphia was murdered a week after financing that move. "The [Fresh Prince] was the light version. There's a much more authentic portrayal of what [fictional] Will is getting away from."
That portrayal has arrived. Bel-Air is a dramatic reimagining of The Fresh Prince, based on a concept trailer by Kansas City filmmaker Morgan Cooper. The moody, gritty clip caught the attention of Smith's Westbrook Studios even before it racked up more than 7 million views in 2019. "It was so creative," Smith says. He recalls being so blown away that he moved swiftly to get involved. Cooper dropped the trailer on a Thursday; by Monday, he and Smith were on the phone.
"My mind just exploded with possibility," Smith recalls. "All the episodes we couldn't do [back then], even the things as a cast we were experiencing day to day. Every once in a while you see an idea so basic, so simple, it's like a revelation. It was like, 'Of course.'"
Peacock, NBCUniversal's streaming service, signed off on a two-season order for Bel-Air in 2021. (The series premiered its first three episodes on Super Bowl Sunday, aka February 13.) While fans, execs and Smith — an executive producer of the new series — were intrigued at the idea of seeing the beloved sitcom in a new light, Bel-Air's premise isn't just about nostalgia and fun.
At least on one level, it works to raise awareness of a harsh, uncomfortable truth: thirty-one years later, circumstances for young Black men in urban environments like Philly haven't changed that much. Black Philadelphians are still about twice as likely to live in poverty as their white counterparts. And in a rather grim coincidence, homicides in the city hit 500 in 2021, meaning that as the ink was drying on Bel-Air's paperwork, any number of other fresh princes were in the same danger zone Will Smith had fled three decades ago.
In Bel-Air, newcomer Jabari Banks plays Will, a gifted basketball player thriving in a community that's as rich in love as it is beset by danger. Son of an adoring but strict single mom, Will has never set foot outside Philadelphia but is about to head off to college on a basketball scholarship. That path closes when one foolish decision lands him in jail and he incurs the fury of a neighborhood menace who puts a target on his back.
Will's mom forces him out of town to save his life, but it's chilling to see how his promise was nearly snuffed out, how easily he could have become a victim of his environment. Cooper says the point here is not Will's exceptionalism, but that all boys in similar circumstances are worth saving.
"I hope to show through our show that excellence exists everywhere and is far-reaching within the Black community," says Cooper, a self-taught cinematographer who cut his teeth making music videos. The idea for the short came to him in a flash of inspiration one day as he was driving.
To read the rest of the story, pick up a copy of emmy magazine HERE.
This article originally appeared in its entirety in emmy magazine, Issue No. 1, under the title, "A Change in the Air."
Get a peek behind the scenes of our cover shoot with the Bel-Air cast HERE.
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