The reimagining of 'The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air' does some things right, but it drops the ball on one of the original’s most complex characters.
There’s a scene in the first episode of Bel-Air, the dramatized Peacock reboot of NBC comedy The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, that exemplifies a core misunderstanding of one of the main characters. Carlton Banks, the son of Phillip and Vivian Banks, is in the Bel-Air Academy locker room with his white teammates rapping to Bobby Shmurda’s “Hot Nigga.” The song, which uses the word “nigga” throughout, is rapped by Carlton’s white teammates with glee as Carlton dances. Will, the star of the show, objects to Carlton’s white lacrosse teammates using the word. Carlton breaks up a fight and ultimately sides with Connor, a privileged bully, about his use of the word. While the scene is well-acted and illustrates the “urban” vs “suburban” dynamic between Will and Carlton that resonated with me in the original series, the Carlton from the original show would be against the use of the word in general, a well-known trope with Black people of a high-class status. If Bel Air is a reboot, then it should revamp the characterizations and complexities of the original show.
When I first watched The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, I was a middle-class Black kid from New York. My family wasn’t wealthy like the Banks family, but we weren’t the family in Good Times either. Black families have a tendency to fluctuate in wealth in America. The Chris Rock joke that “when Black families get a little money, it’s a countdown to when you’re poor again” is suitable for my life story. The art that I loved growing up was Denzel Washington’s magnetic acting in Training Day and Cam’ron’s monotone flows. The arguments that I got into in school were about Oklahoma City upstart Russell Westbrook’s ability to lead a team to a title or jokes about if we look more brolic in a “Merm” coat or in a Pelle. They were debates that Black kids got into. These discussions and topics, undeniably urban, Black, and male, led to my fascination with Carlton Banks and his Victorian mindset.
Carlton was a peculiar Black character. In the original show, he was a dork with a funny dance, believed in the justice system, uncomfortably hero-worshiped his father, had trouble code-switching, was jealous of Will’s charisma, and often chided Will for his Black American vernacular. Will’s heroes were Malcolm X and Julius Erving. Like me, he was loud, a basketball player, and assumed his charm could get him out of any situation. He liked to be goofy and precocious at the same time.
Yet, I liked Carlton as much as Will. Carlton, however dorky and jejune, was also a mensch and someone you could trust. He grew up rich but he wasn’t a social climber. The cornball traits that Carlton showed never ventured into “Uncle Tom” status for me. The show riffed on that as well; allowing Carlton scenes where he pushed back against people who tried to uphold him to mainstream standards of Blackness was rewarding for both him and viewers. Those scenes showed that Carlton was always himself, which forced Will and other kids to accept him for who he was.
Carlton’s unwarranted belief in the criminal justice system is disappointing but for that time, it made sense. In the 1990s, when Democrats were pushing for misguided crime bills, it was possible for Black people to be pro-Black and push bills and morality wars that hurt Black people. As the state used moral panic to fund private prisons and send nonviolent drug users away for decades, people realized that they’d been indoctrinated into a racist system that not only wasn’t healing but getting worse. Folks didn’t have the benefit of reflection and time as they do now, and white America and its Black actors (see: Eric Adams) love nothing more than to use fear to oppress poor people of color. Still, Black people are not a monolith, and Carlton, however uppity and naïve he might be, was as Black to the bone as Will. He was also thoughtful, was there for his cousin when he needed him, and had a chivalrous soul that made sense coming from Phillip Banks’s only son.
The Carlton Banks on Bel-Air isn’t representative of who Carlton was on the original show. Here, he’s grim and duplicitous, and often loses sight of doing the right thing for the easy thing. He’s concerned about his status with his white friends and he’s menacing; his use of Xanax is unnerving, as is the way he uses uppity white people’s language toward Black people in the “hood” in episode four. When his white friends say “nigga,” Carlton says that Black rappers use that word to sell music to white fans every day. If you squint, this makes sense, but when you open your eyes it is a trite way of allowing people to claim a word that isn’t theirs to claim.
There are good things in the reboot. Hillary, a character who I felt the original series made too ditzy and spoiled, has some of the same rich-girl fashionista traits but with more proud and Black womanhood in her. Battles with her mom, Aunt Vivian, are some of the more emotionally resonant work in the series thus far. A fight to stay true to herself in the face of cooking jobs that would prefer her to be more conservative with her style and the amount of spice in the food will be familiar for anyone who hasn’t wanted to sacrifice themselves for mainstream standards. I’m also enjoying Geoffery being considered more of a boss than a butler. He handles issues with Will without the Banks family knowing it, with some ominous undertones that have yet to be fully explored. Jabari Banks, who plays Will Smith, is putting together a good performance. It is committed to the fabric of the part that made Will Smith the actor so beloved. This time, however, he’s stylized for this generation — one scene shows him rapping to Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares” and he often discusses societal issues like the Black Lives Matter movement and defunding the police. But it’s the treatment of Carlton, however unlikeable he is in the reboot, that feels the most off-putting and out of line with who the original character was.
It’s early and there will be larger narratives in the show, but so far the good components of the first four episodes are clouded by the series’ misreading of a beloved character in Black culture.