Revisiting a Sundance panel with Black filmmakers whose work appeared at the festival in January, I was struck by what Aftershock filmmaker Tonya Lewis Lee had to say about the state of Hollywood and its fixation on gangsters and struggle. “Where’s the story about the tech bro who’s doing something?” Lewis Lee asked. “Where’s the story about the Black guy who’s MacGyver? Where is our Black Indiana Jones?” Lewis Lee thinks these projects are on the horizon — that the industry is waking up and realizing “what we really have to offer.” But I doubt such reform is possible. Is the industry waking up or is it realizing it can stripmine Black aesthetics — language, style, swagger — using Black artists in front of and behind the camera to hide the fact that these works are just as uninspiring as what’s come before?
Consider for a moment Hollywood in 1929. One wouldn’t look to that time as a paragon of progress for the Black filmic image. Yet Black American artist Geraldyn Dismond in the British film journal Close Up wrote that year, “It is significant that with the coming of talkies, the first all-Negro feature pictures were attempted by the big companies … The movie of yesterday, to be sure, let him dance, but his greatest charm was lost by silence. With the talkie, the Negro is at his best. Now he can be heard in song and speech.” Every generation of Black folks since the advent of the film industry has believed that this time, Hollywood will get it right. When will we let go of that dream — a dream that a system as venomous as Hollywood will care about representation beyond how it shapes the bottom line?
Bel-Air, Peacock’s dramatic revamp of beloved 1990s sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, may not kill the dream entirely, but it effectively demonstrates how hollow and misguided a dream it is. The reboot, conceived by executive producer/showrunner Morgan Cooper and former star Will Smith, was born when Smith saw Cooper’s short remaking Fresh Prince with archly gritty overtones. The pilot keeps the bare bones of the sitcom: Will Smith (Jabari Banks) is a rising high-school basketball player in Philly. He gets good grades, he loves his mom (April Parker Jones), he cares deeply for his city and his friends like Trey (Stevonte Hart). But when a pickup game turns ugly, Will pulls Trey’s gun on a local low-level gangster to save his friend from a brutal beatdown. Will’s mother, rightfully worried after his arrest, sends him to Los Angeles to stay with family including Uncle Phil (Adrian Holmes), who uses his political influence to pull some strings.
Cooper’s decision to dramatize the sitcom could have effloresced into a genuinely moving story, teasing out dynamics of class, power, and coming of age in a society that’s never had the “racial reckoning” it believes it did. But we live in an exceedingly dark timeline, where Bel-Air is a byproduct of an industry unwilling to give these stories the radical political and social context they deserve. The show attempts to bottle swagger, taking the imagery and argot of Black neighborhoods to communicate a confused message: that Black excellence is equated with wealth. When it seeks to tease out the tensions between Will and his family’s classed perspective on life, the drama unravels, its failures made all the more apparent by starkly ugly cinematography. To untangle the issues inherent in Bel-Air is to take a tour through the pitfalls of Hollywood itself when it comes to Black visual representation.
One of the show’s earliest tells comes to bear through the relationship between Will and Carlton (a dramatically grating Olly Sholotan). In a sequence late in the premiere episode, Will is trying and failing to settle into his new life. He’s exploring the grounds of the prep school he’ll soon be attending and where Carlton may be one of few Black students but is achingly admired. Striding into the locker room, Will finds a gaggle of white students, with Carlton in the center, singing along to a rap song and spouting the N-word with abandon. When Will tries to object to their use of the word, the loudest, Connor (Tyler Barnhardt), gets in his face with all the bravado of the blonde, rich, deeply forgettable white man he is. What’s crucial here is that Carlton stops Will and goes so far as to side with Connor. The locker room gives way to the chintzy interior of the Banks’s mansion. “Day one at Bel-Air Academy and you’re already playing the race card,” Carlton lobs at Will with a diction nearing white mutability. “It’s just a word.” “He ain’t with the culture and clearly you ain’t either,” Will counters as the two cousins stand vis-à-vis. “You’re really flipping out on a word that Black rappers sell to millions of white people like Connor every day and you expect them to not use the words they’re listening to?” Carlton contends. The way the actor says the word “Black” is so hard-edged it dips into parody before going full-throttle with the line, “Kiss my rich Black ass.”
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air ran from 1990 to 1996 — a golden age for Black representation with sitcoms like Living Single, culturally specific kids shows like Gullah Gullah Island, and the works of independent cinematic titans like Julie Dash and Charles Burnett — and launched Will Smith into a cherished pantheon of stars. The series was warm, inviting, and full of physical comedy and loving friction between its various modes of Blackness. James Avery’s Uncle Phil especially remains a cherished example of a doting, active Black father, albeit a conservative one (like most of the Black fathers of that televisual era, with Captain Benjamin Sisko of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine a notable exception). Fresh Prince was born into a post-Reagan America, premiering before the 1991 beating of Rodney King and the 1994 Crime Bill. Today, Uncle Phil’s emphasis on respectability and upstanding behavior hits differently. But Bel-Air fails to sense this shifting ground, evolving the Banks family from proudly pro-Black to an emblem of, as new Carlton puts it, “pure, unadulterated Black excellence.” (Given the Michelle Obama praise in a certain episode, we can infer they are Democrats, broadly speaking.)
The combative relationship between Carlton and Will is the most important driving force in Bel-Air’s first three episodes. Their anger toward what the other represents spills forth from kitchen arguments to fights at school parties. Shifting Carlton from a corny but loving kid invested in his Blackness to one deeply obsessed with whiteness and acceptance by the elites is a remarkable misreading of the original series. It would be far more potent for the writers to engage with Black conservatism without labeling it as wholly white acceptance but rather a consequence of navigating oppression in a world that values what the Banks family has and represents. But even the way the characters are constructed feels muddled, especially on Will’s end as an emblem of the people and “the streets.”
Bel-Air strives for authenticity in the most thinly drawn manner possible. Clock how often Will mentions cheesesteaks or Philly slang (“jawn” being the most frequent), the words tumbling out of his mouth like oversized marbles. When Will tries to escape Bel-Air with help from Jazz (Jordan L. Jones) only to be caught by Uncle Phil and Geoffrey (Jimmy Akingbola), the show dovetails into one of its many artificial moments, never reaching the emotional depths such an exchange requires. “I can handle mine. I ain’t ever had no daddy,” Will cries to Uncle Phil. “I been my own man.” Vulnerability is often chased with posturing sans interrogation. The acting reads as though the performers saw the script once — moments before action was called — and harsh lighting elides the beauty of Black skin tones. But it’s more than just the failed efforts to make Will and his blood kin reflect the specific grooves of Blackness in different geographic environs.
In episode two, as Will chokes playing basketball, his mind reeling back to his harrowing incident with the cops at the start of the series, he has a conversation with Uncle Phil about “the system.” Uncle Phil believes it can be reformed. Will believes, rightly, that it’s working exactly as designed. There’s potentially fertile ground here. They may be talking about the “for-profit school-to-prison pipeline” for Black youth, which Uncle Phil mentions earlier in a campaign speech. The same can be said about Hollywood, an American system as much about propaganda as it is about entertainment. But the writers lack the intellectual heft necessary to properly thread the ideas of class tension and opposing perspectives on American justice within the structure of a Black family.
Bel-Air refashions its world and characters to speak to the present moment in a number of insufficient ways: Ashley (Akira Akbar) is mostly a chipper non-entity in the three episodes made available to critics. Hilary (Coco Jones) is an Instagram baddie branding herself as a “culinary influencer,” wearing improbable outfits while cooking and talking back to her mother with such disregard it undercuts the show’s “Black mom” jokes. Aunt Viv (Cassandra Freeman) is a former artist forced to become an art history professor after marriage and children shift her course. These visual, narrative, and character changes render Bel-Air’s depiction of Black trauma, luxury, and family as one in which the Black part of the equation is, at best, a poor aesthetic posturing rather than a way of being.
What catapulted The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air into a beloved continuum of Black sitcoms wasn’t just how well it slotted class friction into its storylines (particularly within episodes concerning Uncle Phil’s proudly Southern mother or a visit from Will’s mom) or the way it mimics the comfort of slipping into a warm robe with a cup of cocoa on a bitter winter night. It’s the exuberant chemistry of a cast that felt like a living, breathing Black American family. Bel-Air lacks such chemistry, curdling the dynamics meant to enliven the series. Uncle Phil feels like a particular failure, with the warmth and care that previously defined the character lacking on the page and in the performance. This Uncle Phil is focused on his political ambitions to the detriment of his family, doubling down on respectability politics and the belief that Black luxury is radical because Black folks are involved. (Spoiler alert: It isn’t.) And while Banks’s incarnation of Will strives to echo the mannerisms, vocal stylings, and silliness of the sitcom’s Will, this Carlton is acutely reimagined in ways that belie a stunning misunderstanding of the previous sitcom incarnation and the multivalent dynamics of Blackness since it aired.
Bel-Air — within its marketing and the visual landscape of the show itself — is obsessed with royalty. Time and again Will is shown, in daydreams, wearing a golden crown atop a throne. At one point his mother says, “Your crown is still waiting, son. Get ready to wear it.” Bel-Air may glance at watered-down ideas that appear to speak with care toward the tangled dynamics within the Black community. But the royalty imagery is a tell, indicating where the politics and interests of the show truly lie — not with breaking the systems but by becoming their masters. It’s a reminder that when racial progress is measured by Black people gaining entry into white spaces — whether Hollywood or the moneyed streets of Bel-Air — it perpetuates the very ideas of whiteness and power that created those systems in the first place.