Jabari Banks Is The New Reigning Prince of ‘Bel-Air'
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In many ways, history has recorded 1990 as a year of renewed ideas on how to move forward and a simmering down of the material extravagance grossly displayed in the 1980s. Remnants and evolutions of things that happened in 1990 still live with us today, and a prime example of that is the television sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, now rebooted and repackaged simply as Bel-Air.
In 2019, a mock trailer (created by filmmaker Morgan Cooper) of an updated, darker version of Fresh Prince appeared on YouTube to widespread curiosity and praise, even from the original star himself, Will Smith. Fast forward to 2022, and the inspired idea has blossomed into a dramatic series with a two-season order in tow. In this reimagining, suddenly all the laughs around class, race, and family discord in the ’90s series are muted and transfigured into thought-provoking conversation points.
The new Will in Bel-Air is played by Jabari Banks, in his first TV show appearance on camera, ever. “Definitely, my life has flipped. You know, turned upside down for sure,” Banks says while savoring some downtime on a Sunday afternoon. Production was still in full swing at the time of our interview (the series premiered on Feb. 13), simultaneously wrapping up episodes eight and nine of the season one 10-episode order. Growing up in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, now finding success in California, Banks’ life parallels in many ways with the character of Will. But the differences begin to appear when the story digs into the serious, dire situation Will gets himself into in Philly, prompting the character’s mother, Vy, to quickly coordinate her son’s move to Bel-Air. Will’s swift thrust into a world of wealth, that he never thirsted for or could fathom, becomes a daunting forest for him to navigate.
The characters’ relationships with money in the reboot are catapulted to the forefront, acutely observing how class creates unique perspectives for those with significant financial means and those without it. “Will is definitely interested in the idea of having money. Obviously, he’s not opposed to that idea,“ Banks observes of his character. “But I think it’s going to take some getting adjusted to for Will—the idea of how to carry yourself when people know that you do [have money].”
Clear differences, inconspicuously shaped by money, are evident when Will is reintroduced to the Banks family, his aunt, uncle, and cousins in Bel-Air. The oldest cousin, Hilary Banks, is no longer the vacuous comedic relief as in the original series. She’s now working toward internet fame, optimistically growing her following and wholly supported by her parents. And Carlton Banks is now a voracious cocaine user, a startling difference from the straightlaced ’90s version (who only ever had an accidental brush with speed).
Affluence has given Hilary complete freedom to be an influencer and Carlton the resources to nosedive regularly into blow—two instances that open Will’s eyes to what is now accessible to him. And if navigating money and the status it bestows on one wasn’t enough, race is another factor that has always made the fictional Banks family stand out in a sea of wealthy white TV families. That attribute continues to be highlighted in the reboot more deeply.
Representation of Black opulence, despite the challenges that might come with it, is something to rejoice in—an aspirational image that isn’t seen enough in fictional stories and is often covert or inaccessible in real life. Banks muses, “I think it’s so important for us to control our narrative in this way, to really show excellence and opulence on screen, because art reflects life and life reflects art.”