How Canadian Adrian Holmes reinvented Fresh Prince’s Uncle Phil in gritty reboot

When he got the call to audition for Bel Air, Adrian Holmes was worried. Even with three separate scenes to prepare for an adaptation premiering decades after an iconic original 1990s sitcom, he knew he didn’t cut the typical Uncle Phil figure.

In reality, the 47-year-old looked more like a football linebacker than the barrel-chested, strict-but-loving father figure of the original Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

And with his Welsh Canadian background, he seemed to share even less with the West Philadelphia — or even western LA — tale of a teen transported from one coast — and class — of the United States to its opposite.

But, as Holmes said, that kind of turned out to be the point.

“This is a modern day take on the show. The stakes are higher. It’s a different world,” he said in an interview with CBC. “And so, you know, you have to have a little bit of an edge — I wanted him to be just a little more grounded and edged.”

WATCH | Bel Air is a modern reimagining of the original:

Even in the few episodes streaming now on Showcase, it’s not hard to tell that’s what the show aims to be.

While The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air premiered in 1990 expressly to challenge preconceptions about what it means to be Black in the United State — a New York Times article at the time quoted star Will Smith as saying they were attempting to inject some realism and ”another view of the Black experience” to the traditional sitcom formula — it was still, first and foremost a comedy.

Harsh storylines about police profiling, parental abandonment and the question of what it means to be Black at all were even out with laughs and a happy ending.

And that caveat came alongside the fact that the studio and the show’s creators pitched it as a vehicle to make rap and other elements of Black culture palatable to Americans, who were assumed to be unfamiliar — and uncomfortable — with them.

For example: while that New York Times article had writer Susan Borowitz and creator Benny Medina reassuring the studio and journalists that “Will is not threatening,” despite hanging a Malcolm X poster in the first episode, an Entertainment Weekly review tried to distil the wide-ranging influences and intents of the show as trying to “make rap safe for Middle America.”

This photo provided by NBC shows, from left, James Avery as Philip Banks, Will Smith as his self-titled character and Janet Hubert as Vivian Banks in Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The show was marketed as making rap palatable for middle America. (The Associated Press)

And after a Washington Post profile asked the question of why NBC would be “so delighted to have a six foot two inch, 21-year-old Black man in a backwards baseball cap running amok in their office,” the writer of the article answered with a comforting realization: Smith was “the ideal guy to bring a whiff of rap to TV without offending anyone.”

While Bel Air does endeavor to pull plotlines straight from the original, Holmes views it as doing a lot more — or at least doing it differently.

“We’re not filling shoes, we’re creating our own shoes,” he said. “We’re in a whole different place now, and it’s a new generation and it’s a new audience.

“We can take some of the topics and some of the subject matters from the original show, and we can stretch them out and peel back the layers of the onion.”

So far the show has peeled — and reimagined — in a way that checks more than a few of the stereotypical remake boxes. Bel Air was literally created from the success of eventual director Morgan Cooper’s fan trailer, which brought the events of Fresh Prince into the 21st century.

WATCH | How Morgan Cooper’s Fresh Prince fan trailer became a show of its own:

In it, Cooper tried to show the realities of a post-BLM Black teen transported to a majority-white environment, going deeper below the surface than the original ever did.

And while sequels, capitalization on existing intellectual property and remakes are a bigger part of pop culture now than ever before, the trend of recasting lighthearted classics as gritty reboots is so well-established — and, for some, annoying — it’s reached the status of a meme.

But even as everything from Friends to Calvin and Hobbes to Baby has received the gritty reboot treatment, Fresh Prince is the only one to directly lead to a new production. Whether the creative team has gone too far in the other direction, and lost the down-to-earth “If we so rich, why can’t we afford no ceiling“charisma of the original, though, is up to the beholder.

In it, Hilary’s gone from fashion-obsessed ditz to devoted culinary influencer, Carlton from proverbial wet blanket to moustache-twirling villain and Geoffrey from butler to what can closest be described as Jason Bourne — even by the actor himself.

The cast of Bel-Air, from left: Jimmy Akingbola as Geoffrey, Akira Jolie Akbar as Ashley, Olly Sholotan as Carlton, Jabari Banks as Will, Cassandra Freeman as Viv, Adrian Holmes as Phil, Courtney Coco Jones as Hilary. The characters are modern imaginings of those seen in the original Fresh Prince. (Kwaku Alston/Peacock)

Even the Banks’s home has evolved from a sprawling but deliverable house to a neomodern mansion plastered with post-modern art and looking like something straight off the set of Ex-Machina.

For many, that change alone will show what Bel Air is missing.

For his part, Holmes sees it more as an opportunity. His Phil has grown from the lawyer-turned-judge depicted by the late James Avery to a politician wrestling with a fading connection to the Black community he grew up with and serves. Should he support calls to defund the police? Apologize for his wealth? Change how he speaks depending on the room he’s in?

Holmes, who described the responsibility of taking over the role from Avery (he died in 2013 from complications from open heart surgery) as “overwhelming,” said those questions are what will draw in a new audience.

Holmes himself was drawn in by the rare opportunity to be a part of a show that showcases Black lives and characters of all classes. He wanted to tell a story that reflected Black excellence and Black struggle, and that showed Black people as something more than athletes, criminals or side characters.

“It’s very important for us to continue on this path in telling these narratives and these positive Black stories,” he said.

“And the only way they’re going to get done is if we do them ourselves, they have to come from us by us.”

The push and pull of upward mobility central to Bel Air plays out most viscerally between Holmes’s Phil and Jabari Banks’s Will — who, like the real Will Smith, takes on the role as his first acting experience. While Banks has been widely described as a breakout starHolmes simply described him as “fearless.”

“All I got to say is God is good, man,” he said.

From left, Holmes as Phillip Banks, Freeman as Viv and Banks as Will. (Evans Vestal Ward/Peacock)

While his enormous wealth was more a background trait for Avery’s Phil — behind the much more important role he played as an emotional lifeboat for Will — the serious reimagining makes power and fortune central to Holmes’s character.

Where Fresh Prince was created around the idea that Black people and culture were seen as threatening and alien to mainstream audiences, Bel Air posits Black luxury and success as radical and puts Phil — a wealthy, powerful politician — and Will — a Black teen with legal troubles and little monetary resources — on opposite sides of that premise.

Another potential blemish for fans of the original: If you need warm embraces, music swells and audience applause, you’re probably best to stick to the original.

But if you always wanted a Fresh Prince to just go darker, Bel Air might be for you.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

(CBC)

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