‘The Black experience is not a monolith’: ‘Bel-Air’ creator

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Angie Perrin

“Bel-Air” is a drama series set in present-day LA, following Will going from West Philadelphia to Bel Air. Credit: Peacock/YouTube.

More than 30 years after “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” premiered, aspiring filmmaker Morgan Cooper wondered: What if the popular sitcom, which brought hip-hop culture to primetime TV and showed Black wealth in a way rarely seen back then, were reimagined as a drama? So Cooper shot a three-and-a-half minute film called “Bel-Air.” Will Smith saw it and decided to commission Cooper to create a full-fledged TV show. The result is the series, “Bel-Air,” on Peacock, which is back with season two. 

In the 1990s “Fresh Prince,” a kid named Will from West Philly gets into trouble, so his mom makes him live with his aunt and uncle in Bel Air. The new TV series has the same premise, but it differs in “practically every other way” while paying homage to the original, Cooper tells KCRW. 

“The OG sitcom is a half-hour … format. … This is in a one-hour drama that is cinematic. …. Every character definitely carries the spirit of the OG sitcom cast, but at the same time, are completely different and their character journeys are much different as well.” (For example, Geoffrey was the butler in the 1990s version, but now he’s the residential manager, security guard at night, advisor to Phil, and even a fixer.)

Cooper wasn’t even born when “The Fresh Prince” debuted, but he grew up with it. He says growing up as a young Black boy in the Midwest, he was living vicariously through TV characters who look like him. 

“To see Will, Carlton, Hilary, Ashley at such a young age … and just living a completely different lifestyle — was always just very fascinating. … A big part of that is Will and the hip-hop culture and the fashion that we saw on that show. … And so when the vision hit me to reimagine it as a modern-day drama … you look back at the sitcom … there were a lot of really serious moments and subtext in that show that was just played for comedy. … It all just hit me at once. And I caught the bug, I was so passionate about it, and I knew I had to take action and make it happen.”

Will Smith was involved in developing this show too, Cooper explains. Smith was shooting the movie “King Richard,” and in between takes, he talked about the “Bel-Air” characters with Cooper for 30-45 minutes at a time. 

The show aims to send the message that “the Black experience is not a monolith,” especially by juxtaposing Will and Carlton’s lives. 

“It's very easy, especially in LA, to get trapped in a bubble. LA is unlike Kansas City, it's unlike a place like Philly [where] the sun doesn't shine every day, and there aren't as many opportunities for Black people. And so I think that mirror is showing that … we all share the same skin tone, but we all have a different perspective on things.”

Music plays a big role in the new drama too — Cooper highlights emerging artists and created a 50 to 60-song playlist for each character. 

Modern-day Phil listens to A Tribe Called Quest, and grew up listening to Tupac and Biggie Smalls. Vivian enjoys Lauryn Hill and Sade. Will’s playlist features East Coast hip-hop such as Meek Mills. And Carlton’s playlist includes Coldplay, Lil Peep, Jack Harlow, Kid Cudi, Lil Uzi Vert, Cautious Clay, and MGMT. 

“Carlton's got impeccable taste. The thing about Carlton being a 16-year-old young Black man in the Bel Air bubble — he's going to be exposed to different sounds and different sonics than Will is, who grew up in West Philly, where the sounds have more of a street energy to it. And so when they're able to hear this music, they're very quickly able to drop in and understand the tone of these characters.”

He adds, “If you understand what people are listening to, and what music resonates with them, it can help inform their choices and their worldview.”