Creator Morgan Cooper Explains Why Centering Variety Within ‘Black Experience’ Is Priority for ‘Bel-Air’

Cooper spoke to IndieWire about his new series and living a dream.
BEL-AIR -- "Yamacraw" Episode 103 -- Pictured: (l-r) Olly Sholotan as Carlton Banks, Jabari Banks as Will -- (Photo by: Evans Vestal Ward/Peacock)
Evans Vestal Ward/Peacock

In 2019, Morgan Cooper, a fan of the Will Smith comedy series, “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” wrote, directed, and released a short film based on the 1990s sitcom. Although his version took on a more dramatic, darker edge that many found compelling, it went viral, even drawing the attention of Smith, who praised it, calling it a “brilliant idea.” Smith also teased the possibility of expanding it beyond its short form. And sure enough, a year later, in August 2020, it was announced that a television series based on the short had been put into development, with Cooper and Smith as executive producers. Netflix, NBC’s Peacock, and HBO Max all reportedly wanted it, before it found a home at Peacock (the original aired on NBC), with a two-season order. It’s the stuff of Hollywood dreams, and the filmmaker is ready for his closeup.

“Every day I get to wake up and live out my dream through this craft that I put so many years into, so I have so much gratitude for everything that’s happened, and I can’t wait for the fans to see the show,” Cooper said in a conversation with IndieWire. “I was incredibly appreciative that Will really loved the vision. And we connected so much on both a personal level and a creative level. And just to see his excitement, because it came from a place of love.”

The Peacock series is a total reimagining of the story told on the ’90s sitcom. And like any successful re-interpretation of a well-known oldie, “Bel-Air” feels simultaneously familiar and new, rooted in its predecessor while also standing on its own.

Set in the present day, the hour-long drama borrowed the original series’ premise: street-smart Will from West Philadelphia attempts to assimilate into the monied class of Bel-Air. Peacock promises a deep dive “into the inherent conflicts, emotions and biases that were impossible to fully explore in a 30-minute sitcom format” — notably race and class.

For Cooper, it’s about something more.

His objective is to continue the conversation that made the original fresh; and that is that there is no singular “Black experience.” It put an extended Black family on screen comprised of people who couldn’t be more different from each other in terms of lived experiences.

“This idea wasn’t birthed in some corporate boardroom or some corporate studio setting,” he said. “This was parked in my car, riding down 71 highway in my hometown, Kansas City. And so I think people will be able to feel the authenticity through this show and us exploring the beauty of the Black experience. And the multidimensional component of our experience. And that’s what we see in our show is different perspectives of the Black experience to create more of a holistic picture of our existence. And that’s a beautiful thing.”

When the idea came to the 30-year-old self-taught filmmaker, it seemed like a no-brainer and he wondered why it hadn’t already been done.

“It’s what really made sense to me,” he said. “And you think of Will’s origin story, even in the sitcom, the question I asked was, ‘What would that real life scenario look like?’ I definitely saw my fair share of scuffles on a ball court, and they weren’t pretty. So really infusing real-life experiences into this re-imagining is what I think people will take away and really feel it’s like, ‘oh, wow, this is visceral.’ And there’s an authentic layer to it. And it all comes from taking these stories and really making them personal and creating them from the heart.”

Co-showrunner Rasheed Newsome concurred.

“What we’ve done is we’re honoring the legacy of the original, but we are also kind of creating a show that can stand on its own,” he said. “The reason why I think this show will stand out is because of the original series. There’s already a community of viewers. There are already people who can identify themselves as people who know this family, know these characters, and love them. Normally, in a first season show, you’ve got to build all that from scratch. Fortunately, we get to debut with 30 years of history already on our side.”

Cooper is also directing the show, which is a major step for the enterprising filmmaker. Just three years after he uploaded his 4-minute film to YouTube, his new Peacock series will premiere during one of television’s most ideal time slots: right after Super Bowl LVI on February 13, 2022. The opening lyrics to the original sitcom’s theme song are apropos: “Now, this is a story all about how my life got flipped-turned upside down.”

“I’m so excited for people to see the incredible work of this unbelievable crew who’s been working hard for months and months and months through COVID to bring this thing to the screen,” Cooper said. “What ultimately was on my mind in making it was, I wanted to put a lot of care into it because of how much that show meant to me,” he said. “And I wanted Will and the entire cast, the original cast, to know that my vision was there to really honor it through my re-imagining. It wasn’t to any sort of way desecrate the iconic, incredible ‘Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.’ It was really to honor it through my own take on these iconic characters.”

The stuff of Hollywood dreams.

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