August 17, 2022

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The name “Will Smith” holds a double meaning for Jabari Banks, who makes his TV...

The name “Will Smith” holds a double meaning for Jabari Banks, who makes his TV debut starring in “Bel-Air,” Peacock’s adaptation of NBC’s iconic sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”
That series (1990-96) launched then-rap star Will Smith into superstardom, and his onscreen character, also named Will Smith, into TV lore when he’s sent to Bel Air, Calif. to live with his rich relatives after getting into trouble in his West Philadelphia neighborhood. (As recounted in the show’s ear- candy theme song, written by Smith and his hip-hop partner DJ Jazzy Jeff and sung by Smith.)
“Bro, I grew up watching that show,” Banks, 23, told . “My family has the six-season [‘Fresh Prince’] box set, so that would repeat in our house all the time. I have Will Smith sweaters and I dressed up as ‘The Fresh Prince’ in high school with a couple of my classmates.
“That has been the defining show for me in my life — and even before I got the call [for ‘Bel-Air’] I re-watched the six seasons all the way through during quarantine. There are so many parallels between my life and Will Smith’s life. This is my first time in LA and it was Will’s first time in LA when he did the show. I grew up playing basketball and he played basketball and we both do the music thing.”
Jabari Banks and Jordan L. Jones as Will and Jazz in “Bel-Air.”Peacock
So call it serendipity, along with the fact that Banks — who grew up in West Philly and is a 2021 graduate of the city’s University of the Arts — shares a last name with his TV alter-ego’s uber-wealthy family in “Bel-Air”: Uncle Phillip Banks (Adrian Holmes), Aunt Vivian (Cassandra Freeman) and their children Hilary (Coco Jones), Carlton (Olly Sholotan) and Ashley (Akira Akbar). Geoffrey (Jimmy Akingbola) manages the family’s estate (in more ways than one).
The names of the “Bel-Air” characters will be familiar to fans of “The Fresh Prince,” but there aren’t many laughs here. Will, a high school basketball star and excellent student i– who’s being recruited by several colleges — is sent packing by his mother, Vi (April Parker Jones), when he’s arrested after firing someone else’s gun into the air to defend his best friend, Tray (Stevonte Hart), from a vicious beatdown. Vi worries that Will is now a target for revenge; her brother-in-law, prominent attorney Phillip Banks, pulls some strings, and Will lands at LAX to start his new life with relatives he barely knows.
Olly Sholotan (Carlton), Akira Akbar (Ashley) and Adrian Holmes (Phillip) in a scene from “Bel-Air.”Adam Rose/Peacock
“This is a coming-of-age story about a young man finding himself, and so we see where he comes from. He definitely wants to keep a part of West Philly, always,” Banks said. “That’s where he comes from, but he has to figure out the balance between living in Bel Air and his old life. You’re going to see the push and pull of that dynamic during the season.”
It won’t be easy for Will, especially in his extremely tense relationship with Carlton, a big shot lacrosse star at their school (Bel-Air Academy) who’s suspicious of his cousin’s intentions — and who is very jealous of Will’s budding friendship with his ex-girlfriend, Lisa (Simone Joy Jones), who’s at the school on a swimming scholarship.
“Throughout the season you will see them grow together and learn about each other a little more, and you’ll see all their differences,” Banks said of Will and Carlton. Will’s behavior, meanwhile, also worries his Uncle Phil, who’s running for LA District Attorney. Jordan L. Jones co-stars as Jazz, who picks Will him up from the airport when he first arrives and morphs into a good friend and confidant. Will Smith is an executive producer.
Carlton and Will share a tense moment in the school library in a scene from “Bel-Air.”Evans Vestal Ward/Peacock
“Bel-Air” received a two-season order from Peacock, so there will be a lot of time to delve into Will’s back story and his future going forward in his new environment — while he keeps tabs on Tray and his mother back in Philadelphia.
“I knew this character was me,” Banks said. “Throughout my whole life, people said, ‘You kind of have mannerisms like Will [Smith] and you move like him a little bit.’ This is my first [TV] role and ‘The Fresh Prince’ was Will Smith’s first TV role. I remember sitting down with [director/co-writer/executive producer] Morgan Cooper one day and he was like, ‘As soon as I met you, I knew it was you.’
“So from then on I just went with my own instincts.”
“Bel-Air” premieres Sunday, Feb. 13 with three episodes followed by new episodes every Thursday thereafter.

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