Jabari Banks and Jordan L. Jones as Will Smith and Jazz in "Bel-Air".

A Resonating, Meaningful Reboot — “Bel-Air”

“Bel-Air” is good. The dramatic remake of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” is one of the better reboots that’s been made. It’s challenging, and asks you to be more open to the meaning of the original than to its style or sense of nostalgic comfort. It establishes a strong story on the foundation of some superb performances, and it also holds a reverence for what came before that strengthens its argument for being made in the first place.

Like the original sitcom, “Bel-Air” follows Will, a 16 year old from West Philadelphia who offends a gang and is sent across the country for his safety. Under the care of his rich aunt and uncle, he now lives in a mansion in Bel-Air, trying to stay true to himself amid the privileges, luxuries, and expectations of the ultra-wealthy Banks family.

At first glance, “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” might seem like one of those franchises that has no business being remade. The original 90s sitcom was about as perfect as it could be – a hallmark of comedy on television, with an entire cast’s worth of memorable performances. Yet looking at “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” solely as comfort food that shouldn’t be changed or challenged risks overlooking some of its core messages about race, class, and privilege.

We tend to think something that’s good shouldn’t be remade, but the original premiered 32 years ago, and it was so good and had so much to say that a lot more got left on the table. We’ve got more than 400 years of Shakespeare remakes in every imaginable medium, and still get excited when a legendary actor decides to rethink his most recognizable plays. We’ve got 50 Batmans and forked out chunks of change mid-pandemic to go to theaters just to see a multiverse of Spider-Mans – I think “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” can stand being told two whole times. Let’s move away from the fainting couch on this one.

Remakes are like anything else – they can be good, bad, or average. A big part of what makes them successful is the same thing that makes an original story successful: does it have a reason for being? Does it justify having been made? In the case of remakes, does it understand and process the themes, tone, and spirit of the original in a way that demonstrates it’s effectively done the work of adaptation.

“Bel-Air” has done the work of adaptation. It clearly understands the Banks family’s motivations and conflicts. It escalates these in ways the sitcom didn’t because it was a 90s sitcom. Yet at its core, these are effective translations of the characters and story. It also accelerates characters to different plot points: we’re already at the point where Hilary is being forced out of the house, Vivian is thinking about restarting her art career, and Phillip is mid-campaign for district attorney.

It took time to get to all these moments in the original series, but that boasted 148 episodes. An hourlong streaming series today doesn’t have that longevity by design, so it makes sense to find these characters further along in their development than they were allowed in the sitcom.

“Bel-Air” leans hard on the initial conflict between Jabari Banks’s Will and his cousin Carlton, played by Olly Sholotan. Carlton is harder-edged here. He’s not a nerd joke anymore, but a young man who’s had way too many expectations placed on him, and has developed anxiety, a toxic guardedness, and an aggressive way of lashing out. Wary of Will taking up space in his family and gaining popularity at a school where Carlton is…perhaps more feared than admired…Carlton continuously rejects Will and treats him with hostility.

There’s a good reason for escalating this conflict so much. The original series examined Carlton’s desperation to fit in and to be read as white. Carlton had blind spots to racism even when it was directed at him, and so he sought the approval of systems and structures – a sort of guest whiteness that made him defensive of these systems even as they considered him lesser. “Bel-Air” takes that further, and makes Will’s presence a call-out for how much Carlton has traded for that approval. Early on, Will confronts a white student singing the N-word along with a song, and Carlton defends him. At every turn, Carlton is quick to use racist stereotypes to insult and demean Will. Carlton turns racism against Black people into his own weapon that he uses in an attempt to embarrass Will and corner him into a specific role at school.

I can see the criticism that some of this departs the original Will-Carlton dynamic, but to my mind, it investigates a core issue between them with far more depth than the original could as a 90s sitcom. This was a dynamic between them, but in playing it for laughs, it had to be selective about its moments to become more dramatic. As a straight-up drama, “Bel-Air” can just tackle it without having to shy away from its ugliness.

It is not the same thing, but as a Hispanic boy growing up, I did a lot of shoving my Mexican side down and trying to act white, be accepted as white. I practiced a sort of internal violence on myself that was routinely reinforced by racist bullying, white-dominated media, and very few outside my family who could speak to that kind of experience. There is a lot in the Will-Carlton dynamic that hits home, and Carlton’s desperation to be accepted as white and hostility at Will for having the gall to be Black echoes enough similarities to speak to that little kid who spent years hating half of who he is. The contexts of being Black or being Hispanic in the U.S. are very different for those who aren’t both, so I don’t mean to compare the two. Rather, the way that systemic racism teaches and reinforces internalized violence in marginalized groups shares some similarities that can be recognized from group to group. Call it overdramatic if you want, but the conflict between Will and Carlton here is one that exists, that is real, that often plays out with a brutal internal emotional violence, and that viewers still don’t get to see represented very often.

This conflict gives “Bel-Air” a clear and incisive window for critiquing how racist systems indoctrinate even those who are victimized by them. If people think it’s more important that Carlton is a 90s vision of a nerd joke than it is that Carlton is a look at internalized racism, then they won’t be happy with this adaptation. I just think the one is antiquated style; the other is relevant meaning.

Jabari Banks is an absolute find as Will. He embodies so much of the raw vulnerability that Will Smith originally showed in the role. There is absolutely no way to not feel for him in this performance, to not be on his side and want him to succeed. There’s less consistent bravado, but it’s there. In a drama, we see more of the character’s emotional state than a sitcom allows, so we’re more on the side of his vulnerability than on any type of comedic acting. If it keeps up, Jabari Banks’s role as Will ought to be remembered as one of the best performed of the year. The fusion of Smith’s emotion and mannerisms to a character who firmly exists on his own is an at times awe-inspiring performance.

Jazz is beautifully portrayed by Jordan L. Jones here. He meets Will in L.A. as his Uber driver from the airport, and the two quickly become friends. Jazz makes immediate sense as someone Will can be himself around without any of the pressures or conflicts present in his life with the Banks family. They have a shared outlook of the world, seeing L.A. as an alien landscape they have to survive within. His business card may include several different jobs including private investigator, but Jazz knows himself and is centered in the tumult of L.A. This creates trust between the two, as Will is anything but centered, and you can plainly see why they’re friends. It’s a simple but beautifully effective take on a character who was essentially a very good, but very one-note, joke in the original.

Cassandra Freeman’s Vivian Banks is stellar. She feels so incredibly close to Janet Hubert’s original portrayal of the role (before she was replaced by Daphne Reid), and is probably the closest to the original character in the cast. Vivian exemplifies the ability to adapt and code-switch through different crowds and situations that Will so sorely lacks. At the same time, her early conflict with oldest daughter Hilary demonstrates how she expects her children to choose a way of being that denies them access to that same freedom in adaptation. It’s a distillation of the original’s conflict between parents and children: Vivian has kept who she is and where she’s come from intact, but she projects her own form of internalized racism onto children who she expects to conform and negotiate core values away.

That brings us to Hilary, brilliantly realized by Coco Jones. Where she was a ditz joke in the original, Hilary reveals a lot more of the capability early on that she showed later in the sitcom. She’s a moderately successful influencer whose brand is centered on cooking, but who rejects the jobs that ask her to tone down her Blackness and traditional recipes. This comes into direct conflict with Vivian’s desire for Hilary to conform to be successful, even though this is something Vivian resents in herself.

Jimmy Akingbola’s take on Geoffrey is gorgeous in the limited scenes where we’ve seen him. The house manager for the Banks family is capable and observant. The 90s got a lot of mileage from snarky butlers, and Akingbola’s Geoffrey has his moments, but he’s less prim and proper and more of a smooth operator, noticing a bit of everything and living more of his own life.

Adrian Holmes plays Phillip well and April Parker Jones grounds the show even as it takes off running as Will’s mother Vy. We also see Simone Joy Jones as love interest Lisa, and Akira Akbar as youngest daughter Ashley Banks – though she hasn’t had a lot to do yet outside of getting in some quality digs at the breakfast table. Ashley is the youngest of the Banks children, and Will’s presence had a lot of influence in shaping her on the original series. This is something I hope the remake incorporates. It allowed us to see someone growing up and having someone in her life who gave her a better opportunity to consciously recognize and make decisions about the internalized racism that Carlton failed to dodge.

Make no mistake, the genre here is completely different from the original, but the sensibilities are much more similar than style would suggest. One of the things I resist in remakes is an obsession with nostalgia as recognition. A remake shouldn’t be a theme park tour; nostalgia should serve as an opportunity to compare this moment to that one. There are a number of early nods to the original, such as characters repeating a popular phrase, but these are quick bits here and there that never become the focus.

“Bel-Air” is absolutely centered around exactly what I want a remake like this to do: compare that moment to this one, to look at the distance traveled – or lack thereof, to use what we can use now that couldn’t be done then, to be direct in its examination of why a remake should even exist in the first place. “Bel-Air” is a bit over-the-top at times, but it earns it.

The pace is quick, with a mind toward music video editing. This pace gets misused on a lot of series, but that’s not the case here. The editing puts it all together in a way that heightens our sense of certain moments, and that capitalizes on the whirlwind of emotion that Will undergoes. It centers Will’s journey on a constant sense of displacement and it intensifies those moments when Will is othered.

That intensified reality also allows some beautifully symbolic moments, such as breathtaking visions of drowning on a throne underwater. This motif is a clear emotional reality for Will, and it calls us out as viewers for where we find ourselves today in relation to the original series’ throne imagery. It directly calls out one of the show’s core questions – whether success in a system built to hold you down can ever be a success, or simply success for a system that will always hold you down in the ways that are most meaningful. It also hearkens back to the displacement of Africans via the slave trade – communities in their own land, many of whom jumped off the slave ships to drown rather than live in slavery. This in turn reflects Will’s own displacement and trauma, a continuing fear of police brutality he’s already suffered, and the question of how much he’ll conform for approval in this new place at the expense of his own self-determination. “Bel-Air” doesn’t use these symbolic moments too often, but when it does it knows exactly what it’s evoking and why.

There are criticisms. The original Philadelphia gang Will upset is still looking for him, and I don’t know if this is an element of drama that’s needed. I trust the show enough to see where it wants to take this.

I hope that it doesn’t overfocus on the fight between Will and Carlton. It takes over the series early. I don’t want them to solve what they’ve established too early or too easily, and it is one of the series’ strengths. It’s more that I also want to have a window on Will’s relationships with his other cousins, Hilary and Ashley.

I’ve seen “Bel-Air” dismissed in a few corners as soap operatic, which I’m very wary of as coded racism. There’s no level of soap operatic drama here that isn’t far exceeded by “gritty” dramas like “Yellowstone” or the eminently produced navel-gazing of a “Downton Abbey”. Yes, “Bel-Air” is incredibly dramatic, but a displaced, brutalized, traumatized child has some damn right to drama. The difference is that “Bel-Air” is a deeply considered reflection on race and class that immediately recognizes and delves into questions of internalized racism and whether success within a racist system takes part in holding others down to achieve it.

I know “Bel-Air” swapped showrunners and I am cautious of the show failing to expand its range to more fully incorporate all the characters in Will’s immediate story, but…so far this is an incredible success as a reboot. It’s what reboots should do: search for the reason why a reboot might be valuable in the first place and then build on whatever answer resonates so intensely it cannot be denied. Cash-in or not, this isn’t something the artists involved are treating that way. This is a brilliant rethink – imperfect, but reaching so far and so determinedly that it finds moments most series are too timid to approach.

You can watch “Bel-Air” on Peacock, which is included on several other services. New episodes arrive Thursdays.

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