Philadelphia actor cast as Will in reboot of 'Fresh Prince of Bel-Air'

Stephanie Farr
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)
U.S. actor Will Smith poses at the "Bad Boys For Life" launching photocall in Madrid, Spain, on Jan. 8, 2020. (Gabriel Bouys/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

PHILADELPHIA — 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.

During a video call on 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.

Speaking in front of a closet full of clothes in an ironic college T-shirt reading "HARVERD," 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 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 Georgia and went to high school in Maryland), he did attend the University of the Arts in Philly and graduated with a bachelor's degree in musical theater last year.

Justin Lujan, 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."

Lujan 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 in Los Angeles for an audience filled with agents, casting offices, directors and producers.

As a result of that showcase, Banks was signed by Frontline Management and The Kohner Agency, according to Lujan.

"He has an ease to his acting that's very fun to watch," he said. "There's definitely dynamism to what he does."

Lujan said watching Smith deliver the news to Banks on Tuesday was "hugely monumental."

"I mean, it's bananas!" he said.

Publications like Variety have labeled Banks a "newcomer," and the only entry on his IMDb page is the upcoming show. Lujan confirmed that Banks is indeed "fresh."

"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.

While taking on such an iconic role does come with a lot of pressure, Lujan said 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 new dramatic reboot of the beloved '90s comedy is based on a highly-produced 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 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 any time 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 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.

A release date has not yet been set for the new "Bel-Air."