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The parallels between Will Smith in 1990 and the star of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air 2022 reboot Bel Air flirt with the unbelievable. For starters, the fresh-faced actor hails from Philadelphia––West Philadelphia, to be exact. He too is 6’1, raps and writes songs, hoops, and began acting late. Oh, and his government is Jabari Banks. Banks, for heaven’s sake.
A year ago, Jabari had no clue that his steady diet of Fresh Prince reruns would eventually be connected to his spaceship. Having earned a Bachelors degree for Fine Arts in Musical Theater at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, his postgraduate days were spent self-taping and auditioning at an aggressive rate. Then late last July, he scored an audition for Bel Air, the dramatic reimagining of the iconic comedic sitcom airing on NBC’s streaming network Peacock.
For two weeks straight, Jabari prayed without hearing a word, sweating more with each passing day. He finally got a call back on August 2nd––his birthday––to audition for the producers. After being told he’d receive a yay or nay within three to four days, by the fifth day, young’n simply assumed the role wasn’t his. That is until the creator and director of Bel Air, Malcolm Cooper, requested one final reading via Zoom. Once Jabari logged onto the video conference, he was floored. There was no final run through. Just his idol Will Smith informing him that he was the new Prince. “The alignment of the whole process was so crazy I knew it was meant to be,” says the 23-year-old Banks. “I believe nothing happens for no reason. So I just said, let me surrender to the universe and ask for guidance through this whole experience.”
“We don’t always think about how what we’re watching affects our psyche. But it’s a huge part of how we see ourselves.”
The role of young Will fits Jabari like a signature glove. Whether endeavor or scene, he puts a piece of his city into it (“Philly is the place where I really found out who I was,” he says). The Leo also came up in a family as big as it is tight-knit. He’s the youngest of four brothers. Although his parents are divorced, they’ve never stopped bejeweling him with lessons he lives with to this day. Mom preaches that consistency is the key and dad educates his son on work ethic and socio-politics. “He always taught me about being a Black man in America,” says Banks. “That you have to work two times as hard as everyone else. I took that to heart.”
Although acting was always an interest to Jabari, he says he didn’t have any resources as a child to pursue the art. After all, his major loves were rapping and hooping. Once poor grades during his junior year made him ineligible to continue playing varsity, his mother ordered that the point guard find another afterschool activity to keep him off those Philly streets. Says Banks, “I found a light in my theater class and been running with it ever since.”
As teenage Will Smith, Jabari sparkles. The premiere episode alone showcases a dimension and emotional menu which belie the newbie’s zero on-camera experience. His pivots from cocksure high school basketball star to scared straight teen to fish-out-of-water city kid are delivered with assurance and impressive balance. For Jabari, the last five months of shooting has provided the best postgraduate education he could’ve imagined. He says he grows as both a man and thespian with each Bel Air episode.
Most theater graduates don’t land a titanic-size starring role as their first. Having received most of his education on stage with a musical concentration, Jabari’s new dramatic on-camera role demanded quite the adjustment. He credits his grind and commitment when the phone wasn’t ringing for preparing him to seize this moment. He distilled all of the rejection notes and constructive criticism into fuel. Now he’s whipping atop new professional terrain and around a learning curve. “In theater, you’re taught to be big,” he says. “You have to talk to the last row. That year when I was just auditioning, I had to teach myself how to make my movements smaller and play with nuance.”
“The Fresh Prince in Bel Air raised me. That I’m in this position now is just surreal.”
Although the rookie leads his team like his favorite NBA ballers of yesterday (Allen Iverson) and today (Ja Morant), The Fresh Prince of Bel Air was never a one-man show. Aside from Aunt Viv, who Fresh Prince day ones will be happy to learn has been returned to original form and hue by actress Cassandra Freeman, the Banks family has received compelling upgrades. Hillary, played by the new Taral Hicks, Coco Jones, replaced the ditziness for wokeness; the rotund Phillip Banks is now Adrian Holmes’s more fit, debonaire and grounded version; Akila Akbar’s Ashley proves that yesterday’s 12-year-old is not today’s preteen; even Jimmy Akingbola has emphasized the “G” in Geoffrey. The most interesting update is Carlton, played by Olly Sholotan. While still a privileged rich kid extremely comfortable in the white world of Bel Air, Will’s 2022 cousin––at least for the first few episodes––is like a Venom version of the happy-go-lucky Carlton.
Will, on the other hand, is pretty much the same kid we fell in love with on September 10, 1990. He still speaks the language of Black youth (“word up” has been swapped for “on God.”) and his swag remains on a trill (the inside-out prep jacket remains). He’s still charismatic, yet entertainingly unrefined enough to greet elders with a slap-pound and one-armed bear hug. If anything, Jabari has only elevated Will’s attributes. The goofiness has been abandoned for an honor student with strong conviction. Moreover, the original Will being revered in Black culture as a style pioneer allowed his successor’s fashion to fly higher. With a fade that’s tighter than skinny jeans, Jabari kills as much in modern denim and retro brands like Cross Colours as he does in a mauve suit (sans the hiked cummberbun). Oh, and the Air Jordan collection has only increased.
For the City of Brotherly Love native, proper representation for his people “is everything.” Jabari understands that the original TFPBA sits on a pedestal today because it provided African-American reflection. Before Quincy Jones and Benny Medina gave us their first television show, flat top fades, unfastened overalls and the “Running Man” were practically invisible on the small screen. The reboot continues that legacy, honoring Black culture from authentic West Philly to cultural references (the movie, ATL) and figures (artist Kara Walker). Even Jabari having a legit b-ball handle was pivotal to Bel Air keeping it a buck. “We don’t always think about how what we’re watching affects our psyche,” Banks begins. “But it’s a huge part of how we see ourselves. So to represent us in a way that’s exemplary of our excellence, and showing the trials that we go through and how we overcome them is going to be huge for kids growing up.”
When Peacock’s newest star refers to his first on-screen experience as “the ultimate blessing,” there isn’t a hint of performativity in the air. He’s already living one dream and has his sights on another. Once Bel Air’s first season wraps, the Will reincarnate won’t be taking a vacation. “I’m going straight to stu!,” he says, referring to the recording studio where the Travis Scott and Kanye fan plans to complete his debut rap EP for a summer release. He’s aware of the currency that is time. Mom and Dad are still in his ear and the memory of last summer’s struggle is still fresh.
He’ll never forget being apartmentless while waiting daily for those Bel Air call backs. To the point where in order for him to take that final Zoom with his director, he had to use a friend’s home to ensure a strong wifi signal. He took the call from inside of a closet. The experience was quite humbling. It was also life changing. In that closet is where his professional career began; where he finally met the mentor in his head. In that closet, he sat in awe and disbelief that the King of Hollywood was on his screen crowning him the new Prince of Bel Air.
“Will has always been that person for me,” says Banks about the 2022 Oscar nominee. “The man taught me so much and he didn’t even know. I’ve watched his motivational videos and listened to him speak; in a way, [“The Fresh Prince in Bel Air”] raised me. That I’m in this position now is just surreal.”