Morgan Cooper: ‘BEL AIR’

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Morgan Cooper. Photo by Jaimie Milner

This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes “BEL AIR” creator and director, Morgan Cooper. The series, which was inspired by “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” is streaming on Peacock. Cooper tells The Treatment he wants to tell everyday stories of “Black normalcy” in his work. He says his influences, which include hip-hop artists and producers J Dilla and MF Doom along with photographer Gordon Parks and Roy DeCarava, find their way into “BEL AIR.” And Cooper says, if not every viewer understands the specific choices and references he made in the series, that's OK with him.

The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity. 

KCRW: Welcome to the treatment, the Home Edition. I'm Elvis Mitchell. My guest, Morgan Cooper, made a splash a few years back with a short film called "Room Tone," which looks at what we think is in front of us, versus what we're actually seeing and hearing. And that carried over into his thoughtful viral short "BEL AIR," a reimagining of the beloved sitcom "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air," rooted more often in drama. So let's go back to "Room Tone" with what we think is in front of us versus what's actually there. Where does that come from?

Morgan Cooper: I remember I was on set back when I was doing cinematography work before I pivoted fully into writing, directing, and me and the sound guy on the shoot, a guy named Larry, we'd become really close. In between breaks, he would just tell me about his life and how he started out as a musician, and how it's very hard for a musician to make money. And so he pivoted into sound mixing.

I remember, he was taking room tone, which is when a sound guy at the end of the scene will stand there and just say, "room tone," and everybody stands still, and they capture the tone of the room. And in that moment, it hit me to tell his story. And that's always been a desire of mine is to tell stories of Black normalcy: Black people that just wake up every day, show up to the job. There's no extravagant scenario. It's just a guy who has a passion for music. But we see how that's conflicted with making money, which is why I pivoted to sound mixing and him rediscovering his passion. So it's just about telling everyday stories because I think there's remarkable components to normalcy.

KCRW: It's something we can see in the pilot of "BEL AIR," just the idea of Black people getting through a single day is a really interesting thing to show. The pilot feels like it's almost on a clock, in a way the rest of the show does not.

Cooper: That's right. We see Will's journey, waking up in the morning, what is his life like, what's the day in West Philly like, and just the normal moments. And, I think that's really important to show on television in West Philly. It has its challenges, but it also has so many beautiful components, and it's such a rich, vibrant community. So we wanted to make sure to represent that community holistically.

KCRW: But it's also about the weird unpredictability of what it's like to be a Black person in America. What starts off as a normal day turns into a terrifying adventure that upends your whole life. To go from the quotidian to the surreal like that is Black life encapsulated. 

Cooper: Things move very quick in the 'hood. A normal day; things can change in a heartbeat. That's what we see in the pilot. And it's really important for young teens, especially young Black teens; we have to have far more self control because of how we're viewed in this country. You can have a kid who's done everything right his entire life, and one moment of pride can really change things. And that's very real, outside of the show. I've seen it before, guys I grew up with.

 I'm thankful to have my dad in my life. He's always been in my life, but I grew up around a lot of guys who didn't have dads in their life, so some of those components in terms of patience, and not letting ego take over, can be really challenging. That's something that we see in Will's journey, in the pilot is the young man who's doing all the right things, and he has everything in front of them, but at the same time, those moments of pride and wanting to be that guy in your city. Those types of components can take over and kind of blind you in terms of doing the thing that's right, ultimately. 

KCRW: In "BEL AIR," it's about Black ambition and how that can be a beautiful thing and a potentially dangerous thing, and how do you realize that and stay true to yourself? 

Cooper: I think we can all relate to that. I feel like as Black people in this country, I think one of the challenges is on your road to success just due to our existence, our origins in this country, and everything during our ancestors' experience, as we climb in the society, we're going to have to do business with people that don't look like us. And so with that comes things like code switching, having to change who we are, and forget where we come from in order to succeed and continue to climb the ladder. And man, that duality is so challenging. And I think there are so many Black people who can understand or relate to that.

 It's beautiful that it's becoming a time where we're building our own infrastructure to where we don't have to degrade ourselves through changing how we talk, changing how we dress. We can be ourselves and still thrive. And we're still at the beginning, but that's something that's a big exploration of my work. And that's something that I really went through at the beginning of my career is feeling like I'm on the outside looking in, and seeing all these people who are working, they don't look anything like me. And they're not talking how I talk, but I want to pursue this career. And, just the challenges of that, the heartache. This is how I usually dress. Just being honest with it, that's hard. And it's a really vulnerable thing to say, but it's the truth. 

BEL-AIR -- "Dreams and Nightmares" Episode 101 -- Pictured: (L-R) Coco Jones, Jabari Banks, Morgan Cooper -- (Photo by: Adam Rose/Peacock)

KCRW: For me, in watching this, Carlton becomes the tragic figure because he's the guy who is in Will's generation, but still lives his life the way his parents did, where you had to sacrifice, you had to code switch if you wanted to succeed and Will's freedom. And the way you sort of pull moments from the old show to do that, like the flipping the lining of the jacket or coming to the house for the first time, you can still see how Will comes into Carlton's world, a world that he still owns, but we can feel the level of compromise in that. 

Cooper: Two young Black men, the exact same age grew up on different coasts, in different socio-economic circumstances, in just a completely different culture. It was really interesting to me looking back at the old sitcom and saying: what if we really ground the scenario? It's not about being gritty, or dark or dramatic. It's just: what would this actually look like? That was always the North Star in terms of the feeling that I was chasing. 

I'm a diehard J Dilla fan, and I loved how J Dilla would take things from the past and extrapolate and mix and match these different samples putting them together and reimagine them in interesting ways. And the same thing with Madlib and MF Doom, just looking at art in a different way and taking these things we thought we knew and reimagining through a different lens. And that's something I wanted to explore in the show from a tonal perspective, and also a thematic perspective. Carlton, really, he's a great portal into having those really uncomfortable conversations that we see on screen through the show. 

KCRW: I even feel like we can see some inspiration from MF Doom in your reimagining of the crown sequence.

Cooper: Yeah, absolutely. I've got a very wide range of influences within my work. My dad had me when he was 50, and so growing up it was just all bebop, Miles, Coltrane, Cannonball, just all the classics but at the same time Curtis Mayfield and those types of joints. My dad was big on "Shaft." I felt like I watched "Shaft" more than I watched Barney growing up. [Films like] "I'm Gonna Git You Sucka," "Juice, "Boyz n the Hood," Menace II Society," "Set it Off."  Then in my own life with my friends listening to Dipset and all the Roc-A-Fella guys and what those guys were doing at the time. And MF Doom has always been a very big source of inspiration in my work just in terms of creating, unapologetically doing something different. And if somebody doesn't get it, that's fine. Not having any sort of expectation for viewers, I think is important. If you make art, trying to pander to everyone, you'll ultimately make something that's not meaningful to anyone.

KCRW: "Room Tone" is also about time. In this weird way, it feels like it’s taking place almost in real time, in the same way the pilot does.

Cooper: Man, that's a really good observation. And I love that type of storytelling, when you're really seeing the world through a singular perspective. In that pilot, we only break out of Will's POV, like twice in the entire pilot, and the thing is 56 minutes. Because of that, you are able to really see it through their perspective in real time. That's a very visceral experience when you can experience these things in real time, with a singular character, and you're meeting all these different characters through their lens through their POV. 

KCRW: This is the kind of thing that Doom was always getting down about, that idea of finding your freedom somewhere. Clearly, conceptually, that is something that means a lot to you because it's at the heart of a lot of stuff you've done, trying to find where you feel free.

Cooper: I think at the end of the day, that's all we want, as human beings. Our time here is so short. And if we sit there, and we're constantly concerned about living for other people, and living up to other people's expectations, versus being authentic selves, and being able to maneuver in environments, truly free, especially as Black people, that's all we want in life. That's definitely a big theme that we explore through the show through these characters, Viv and Phil, and what it means to be Black and wealthy in this country. There's a serious duality to it, survivor's remorse. That's something we experience, as we get further into the season, as well as: Will was able to wiggle out the situation of Philly, but what did he leave behind? At what cost to other people in his life?

That's the story, I think, many Black people can relate to as well. Many people of color have become successful in this society that wasn't built for us. But what about our friends and family, who weren't able to get out of those situations? That's a challenge on our spirit. To explore that, I think, will be cathartic for a lot of people. I know it was cathartic for me. 

KCRW: One of the things that we can really get from your work is your excitement about being inspired, and you want that to be infectious, don't you?

Cooper: 100%. We should pursue as artists those ideas that keep us up at night, that are really, really on our heart and not just: this is a job, this is what sells. Of course, we want to be successful, and of course, we want to create a product at the end of the day that people watch. Myself, the studios, the network, it really is a partnership, and so we want it to succeed. But at the same time, I've always felt like good art that comes from a place of passion is really profitable. And I think as we head into the future where there's so much artifice, and people are on their phones more and more, and things are just so digital and not handmade anymore, I think there's really a deep desire to watch things that come from a place of passion and people can feel it. People can feel the emotion even if they don't necessarily understand it.

There's gonna be so many people who watch this show who are not going to understand the cultural significance of Freeway's "What We Do," but I'll tell you what, that song is very culturally significant. There are people that are gonna watch it like, "why did they?" but that's okay because it's real. It's coming from a real honest place. And so even if people don't necessarily understand it, I do believe that there's a feeling of wow, that was expressed from an authentic place that came from something real.

KCRW: In the show, to some extent, Will feels freeist when he's able to use his hands. Hands are really important to the way people express themselves.

Cooper: If you really think about it, whether it's a touch or a punch, hands are very, very, very, very powerful. It's always done something for me emotionally to capture hands doing things. I've no idea why but just really getting in there and seeing what hands could do whether it's a handshake or a touch or a warm embrace man or a punch or a slap.

 I think about my idols like Roy DeCarava, Gordon Parks, those images of them really getting in there on their subjects' hands. There's this image, I think it's from ‘The Sweet Flypaper of Life,” of hands holding a baby. Just like the tenderness and intimacy of that image: we need more of those images. We live in such a crazy chaotic world where nobody takes the time to look at the simple things and honor our humanity and say, damn, we're humans, and we're alive. And we're breathing. Let's enjoy the simple moments. 

BEL-AIR -- "Dreams and Nightmares" Episode 101 -- Pictured: (L-R) Morgan Cooper, Jabari Banks, SteVonte Hart  (Photo by: Clifton Prescod/Peacock)

KCRW: I can really feel all these influences you're talking about in your work, and that vibe from all those people that you’re talking about being influenced by, we can feel it in the way you think.

Cooper: I remember when we were developing the pilot, something that was really, really important was: we have to be in Philly. We have to start this thing off in Philly. There's no other way to do it. We need to go there, boots on the ground, show our faces, connect with the community, embrace the community, and ask them to humbly embrace us and we did. The town was so excited about us being there and interacting with them and getting them involved. 

In West Philadelphia is where our very first day of filming took place. I remember just sitting there and seeing young Jabari Banks, his life about the change, and him coming in with so much confidence out of the gate. And it was just such a real visceral experience. People can feel that texture in the art. Like Young Bull, who stood up on the bike is a kid from West Philly who I found on Instagram, and wrote him into the script. And he created such a moment.

KCRW: By the way, that’s a great take. Because we were talking about hands, I was just thinking back to "Room Tone," how he kind of sculpts a world around him with those hands. It's almost like he's working with the clay of the sound experience. 

Cooper: I'm so happy that you took the time to watch “Room Tone.” That's a short that we put a lot of heart into. That was really a life changing short from the standpoint that I was a cameraman at the time, and I wanted to get into writing and directing because the material I was getting for narrative stuff, my cinematography career just wasn't material I was interested in. So I was like, you know, I'm going to write my own material.

KCRW: What kind of stuff were you getting?

Cooper: Horror films. I wanted to tell stories of Black people period, very specific Black stories. And I always had these ideas, that were like, man, Oh, that would be a great story. That'd be a great film. But at the time, I was like, Well, I'm a cinematographer. As a cinematographer, it's vulnerable because you're balancing the material that you get across your desk. So for me, it was just like, You know what, I'm gonna write and write. I'm just gonna try it. My mom always said, growing up, imperfect action is better than perfect inaction. Just do it and learn along the way. And that's what I did. 

I wrote the script in a really ugly Pages document. I think the only person that might be proud of that mash up would be like Dilla and Doom straight up. That thing was imperfect to say the least. But you know, I did it. And I scraped together my own money to produce that short, and it made it in the Chicago Film Festival and pretty big film festivals. More than anything, though, I learned a lot from it, and I caught the bug. And I said, this is what I want to do. I want to write and direct and tell these really intimate stories that I think are important for the world to see.



Rebecca Mooney