Now this is a story all about how one Philadelphian’s life got flipped, turned upside down and I’d like to take a minute, just sit right there, I’ll tell you how Jabari Banks became the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
In a Zoom call posted online Tuesday, Philly native Will Smith surprised West Philly resident Jabari Banks with the news that he’s been tapped to play the iconic role Smith made famous in an upcoming dramatic reboot of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
“What’s up, Philly? What’s up, Philly?” Smith asked Banks, as he appeared on a split screen with the young actor to deliver the good news.
Wearing an ironic college T-shirt reading “HARVERD” while sitting in front of a closet full of clothes, Banks promised Smith he was “so ready” to play the part. Banks even revealed that he once convinced a group of friends in high school to dress up as the cast of The Fresh Prince with him.
“This is a dream come true. You don’t know,” Banks said. “You probably do know. You feel it.....the show has impacted me and my life. It’s going to be an incredible experience.”
While Banks was not born and raised in West Philadelphia (his social media accounts indicate he’s a native of Atlanta and went to high school at Riverside Baptist School in Upper Marlboro, Md.), he does have family here and attended the University of the Arts in Center City, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in musical theater last year.
Justin Luján, program director for acting at the University of the Arts, said Banks is a “jack of all trades.”
“He sings, he dances, he acts, he raps, and he plays basketball, which is what got him this role,” he said. “And in that way, he’s like Will Smith.”
Luján worked closely with Banks on an independent study project and for the university’s Los Angeles showcase in 2020, where students performed scenes, songs, and monologues at the Matrix Theatre for an audience filled with agents, casting offices, directors, and producers.
“He has an ease to his acting that’s very fun to watch,” Luján said. “There’s definitely dynamism to what he does.”
As a result of that showcase, Banks was signed by Frontline Management and The Kohner Agency, according to Luján.
Craig Dorfman, Banks’ manager and a longtime friend of Luján’s, said he met Banks while teaching a class at the University of the Arts in 2019 and encountered him again when he directed the L.A. showcase last year.
“I said to Justin, ‘That kid’s going to be a star.’ He has the personality and the swagger,” Dorfman said. “I knew from the minute I met him that he was the next Will Smith. That’s what I kept saying.”
“He’s only been out of school a year-and-a-half and in that year-and-a-half we’ve been in a pandemic,” he said.
According to Dorfman, all of Banks’ auditions for the role were done over video, save for one in-person meeting in Philly with the show’s creator and director.
“We had a long audition process and he had a lot of great competition, but in the end, Philadelphia wins,” Dorfman said.
Luján said watching Smith deliver the good news to Banks on video was “hugely monumental.”
“I mean, it’s bananas!” he said.
While taking on such an iconic role comes with a lot of pressure, Luján believes Banks is the kind of actor who can handle it.
“He has the chutzpah to pull it off,” he said. “It’s interesting because it’s not necessarily the same show. There’s room for him to create his own character based on the original.”
Titled simply Bel-Air, the reboot of the beloved ‘90s comedy is based on a three-minute trailer written, filmed, and directed by Morgan Cooper that was released in March 2019 and has more than 6.8 million views.
“What would happen if Will Smith made The Fresh Prince today? Bel-Air, a story of a kid from Philly whose life got turned upside-down … in 2019. A fan-made film,” Cooper captioned the clip on YouTube.
In the trailer, the character of Will is playing basketball with guys in Joel Embiid and Free Meek shirts, when he gets in one not-so-little fight on the court that results in cops rushing to the scene. When police find a gun in Will’s backpack, it’s the final straw for his mom.
“You are carrying a gun on the streets to protect yourself? I’ve done my best Will. It’s time for a change,” she says. “You’re going to Bel-Air to live with your uncle and your auntie.”
Once in Bel-Air, Will has to contend with his strict Uncle Phil and his Republican cousin Carlton who is definitely not going do a silly dance to lighten the mood anytime soon.
“Why don’t you go back to Philly. Born and raised, right?” Carlton says as he gets up in Will’s face.
Other familiar characters in this Fresh Prince multiverse include Aunt Viv, cousin Hillary, and “Jazz,” who introduces himself to Will in a record store by saying “Yo, you must be from Philly.”
In a September 2020 video, Smith announced that Peacock — the streaming service for NBCUniversal — ordered two seasons of Bel-Air based on the trailer and a pitch. In the video, Cooper said this will be a show “that’s really going to surprise people in the best way possible.”
“We’re really going to peel back the layers of these iconic characters and explore this world in a really unforgettable way,” he said.
In the video, Smith — who is an executive producer on the new series — said that in the early days of filming The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, he was “as wildly fearless and creative as I have ever been.”
“There was a level of reckless abandon that I’ve been dying to try and find again over the last like four or five years of my life,” he said.
Dorfman said the show will film in Philly and Los Angeles, but a release date has not yet been set.
As to how Banks was able to stay so composed during his surprise Zoom call with Smith, you can just chalk that up to good acting.
“Inside he was screaming,” Dorfman said.