‘Bel-Air’ Emmys FYC panel: Jabari Banks and Cassandra Freeman discuss ‘important and impactful’ drama series [WATCH]

Nearly a quarter century after NBC sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” ended its six-season run, filmmaker Morgan Cooper uploaded a mock trailer for a dramatic reimagining of the series to YouTube, where it has since gained over seven million views. The video’s popularity soon led to the reboot idea becoming a reality in the form of Peacock series “Bel-Air,” which premiered this February. Cooper (who produces the show and directed and wrote part of its first season) recently participated in a 2022 Emmys FYC panel along with showrunners/executive producers T.J. Brady and Rasheed Newson and actors Akira Akbar, Jimmy Akingbola, Jabari Banks, Cassandra Freeman, Adrian Holmes and Coco Jones, moderated by Justin Sylvester from E! News. Watch the video Q&A above.

Brady and Newson, who have produced seven shows together beginning with “Army Wives” in 2012, both admitted they were unsure about how this particular venture would play out, but that their hesitancy was quelled when they entered the production stage and subsequently witnessed audience reactions. As Newson put it, “I could never have dreamt that it was going to do this well or be this important and impactful to people.” When asked about the show’s visual aesthetic, he spoke about how the sets and costumes are made to “[look] good [while] also serving the story.” Brady also mentioned the importance of “[paying] homage to the original… and [throwing] a little fun out to the fans.”

The members of the cast all passionately described how their performances are intended to constructively impact modern Black culture, with Holmes saying he is proud “to be able to tell positive Black stories and to be an inspiration to the next generation” and to create conversations “that a lot of shows [don’t] really focus on.” On the show, he embodies patriarch Philip Banks (originally played by the late James Avery), who he referred to here as a “beautifully crafted character” who ultimately “wants fairness… in the world.”

Banks, who inherited the role of troubled teenager Will Smith from the Oscar-winning actor of the same name, said he was “super excited to bring [the characters] back for a new generation” and that he has strived to “lean into the truth” of playing his. The 23-year-old went on to muse about how stepping into the “Bel-Air” world has made him “a totally different person” and that he has “grown so much and learned so much from every individual person on this show.”

Akbar echoed Banks’s mention of truth by saying she thinks the series exudes “a sense of authenticity and reality of showing what it’s like to be a real, successful Black family” whose wealth does not grant them perfectly smooth lives. Regarding her character, burgeoning preteen activist Ashley Banks (originally played by Tatyana M. Ali), she said, “Next season I really want to see her stand up for something that she believes in and wants to see a change in.”

Akingbola also expressed a desire to see his character, Geoffrey Thompson, be developed further, although he did praise the creators for making this version of Geoffrey (whose surname was Butler when played by Joseph Marcell) “nuanced [and] vulnerable.” He went on to discuss how steps have been taken to make sure the Banks family’s house manager avoids servant stereotypes and how he enjoys “[leaning] into the mystery of Geoffrey.” As for what he hopes is in store for Thompson, he said he especially “would love to see [him] fall in love [and] connect with his son.”

Olly Sholotan, who plays the Alfonso Ribeiro-originated role of Carlton Banks, briefly contributed to the chat with a pre-recorded answer to a question about the public response to his performance. His notion that the show teaches “young Black boys that it’s okay to be emotional [and] imperfect” inspired Cooper to reflect on his own childhood in the moment and then say, “We can break the cycle [of toxic masculinity] through our passion as artists… It’s up to us to be the ones to… show these emotions on screen because those feelings are real.”

In taking on Karyn Parsons’s role of Hilary Banks, Jones believes she is “rewriting a lot of stereotypes about what’s beautiful” and that, through the character, she gets to “stand up for [and] be authentic to” herself. She also said she is “excited to be representing in this way” as the embodiment of an ambitious and confident young Black woman who transcends the spoiled rich girl trope. Referencing the show itself, she said, “Everyone knows this is bigger than us… this is a group effort, and because we’re all a group striving for something, we [have turned] into a family.”

The matriarchal role of Vivian Banks first played by Janet Hubert and then Daphne Maxwell Reid now belongs to Cassandra Freeman, who said she is attempting to present what it looks like “to be wealthy and still be very much rooted in where you’re from.” To her, her place of origin is not just a physical location, but also a spiritual sense of longing to be “fully self-expressed” above all else. In addition to thanking the writers for making her character “tender and vulnerable,” she spoke about her belief in the “transformational power of love,” saying, “This show is deeply grounded in love [and the idea that] even if you do wrong, love can still meet you.”

The critical consensus surrounding “Bel-Air” is that it has sufficiently proven its worth as a bold retelling of a familiar story. Empire’s Amon Warmann raves that it “uses its deceptively simple setup as a vehicle through which to have important, necessary conversations,” and Zaki Hasan of The San Francisco Chronicle writes, “This new take bucks the odds and plays for audiences new and old, proving the resilience of [its] premise.” Regarding the show’s upcoming second season, Banks said he is “excited to start… because we’re going to kill it.”

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