How Canadian Adrian Holmes reimagined Fresh Prince’s Uncle Phil in a hard reboot

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

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

And with his Welsh-Canadian descent, he seemed to share even less with West Philadelphia – or even West Los Angeles – the story of a teenager transported from a coast – and a class – of the United States. United to its opposite.

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

“It’s a modern 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 edge – I wanted him to just be a little more grounded and more edgy.”

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

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

While The prince of Bel-Air created in 1990 expressly to challenge preconceived ideas about what it means to be black in the United States – an article from the New York Times at the time, star Will Smith said they were trying to inject some realism and “another take on the black experience” into the traditional sitcom formula – it was always, above all, a comedy.

Tough storylines about police profiling, parental abandonment and what it means to be black were evened out with laughs and a happy ending.

And that caveat came with the show’s studio and creators pitching it as a way to make rapping and other elements of black culture acceptable to Americans, who were supposedly not unfamiliar – and uncomfortable – with them.

For example: while this New York Times article had writer Susan Borowitz and creator Benny Medina reassuring the studio and reporters that “Will isn’t threatening,” despite hanging a poster of Malcolm X in the first episode, one Entertainment Weekly Review tried to distill the series’ wide-ranging influences and intentions in trying to “make rap safe for Central America.”

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

And after a Washington Post Profile asked why NBC would be “so thrilled to have a six-foot-two, 21-year-old black man wearing a backwards baseball cap running amok in his office,” the article’s author responded with a heartwarming realization: Smith was “the perfect guy to bring a whiff of rap to TV without offending anyone.”

While Bel Air strives to pull plots straight from the original, Holmes sees it as doing a whole lot more – or at least doing it differently.

“We don’t fill shoes, we create 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 subjects and some of the subjects from the original show, and we can stretch them and peel the layers of the onion.”

So far, the series has unpacked — and reimagined — in a way that more than checks out some of the stereotypical remake boxes. Bel Air was literally created from the success of future director Morgan Cooper’s trailer, which reported the events of fresh prince in the 21st century.

WATCH | How Morgan Cooper is fresh prince fan trailer has become a show in its own right:

In it, Cooper attempted to show the realities of a post-BLM black teenager transported into a predominantly white environment, going deeper below the surface than the original ever did.

And while sequels, capitalizing on existing IP, and remakes are more part of pop culture than ever, the trend of recasting lighthearted classics as gritty reboots is so entrenched — and, for some, boring — it’s achieved meme status.

But even if all of Friends for Calvin and Hobbes for Bambi got the gritty reboot treatment, fresh prince is the only one to lead directly to a new production. If the creative team went too far the other way, and lost the down-to-earth sense “If we’re so rich, why can’t we afford no ceilingThe original’s charisma, however, depends on the viewer.

In it, Hilary went from fashion-obsessed ditz to dedicated food influencer, Carlton from proverbial wet blanket to twirling mustache villain and Geoffrey from butler to what can best be described as Jason Bourne – even by the actor himself.

The cast of Bel-Air, left to right: 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 day imaginings of those seen in the original Fresh Prince. (Kwaku Alston/Peacock)

Even the Banks’ house has gone from a sprawling but habitable house to a neo-modern mansion covered in post-modern art and looking like something straight out of the set Ex-Machina.

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

For his part, Holmes sees it more as an opportunity. Son Phil has gone from lawyer-turned-judge represented by the late James Avery to politician struggling 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 his way of speaking according to the room in which he is and the composition of those who inhabit it?

Holmes, who described the responsibility of reprising the role of Avery (he died in 2013 of complications from open-heart surgery) as “overwhelming”, said these questions are what will attract new audiences.

Holmes himself was drawn in by the rare opportunity to be part of a show that showcases black life 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 secondary characters.

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

“And the only way to make them is if we make them ourselves, they have to come from us through us.”

Upward mobility pushing and pulling is at the heart of Bel Air plays out most viscerally between Holmes’ Phil and Jabari Banks’ Will – who, like the real Will Smith, takes on the role as his first acting experience. While Banks has been widely described as a escape starHolmes simply described him as “fearless”.

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

Left to right, Holmes as Phillip Banks, Freeman as Viv, and Banks as Will. (Evans Vestal Ward / Peacock)

While his enormous wealth was more of a background trait for Avery’s Phil – behind the much larger role he played as emotional lifeboat for Will – the serious reimagining puts power and fortune at the heart of Holmes’ character.

Or fresh prince has been created around the idea that black people and culture were seen as threatening and alien to the general public, Bel Air posits black luxury and success as radical and places Phil – a wealthy and powerful politician – and Will – a black teenager with legal troubles and few monetary resources – on opposite sides of this premise.

Another potential flaw for fans of the original: if you need warm hugs, musical swell, and audience applause, you’re probably better off sticking with the original.

But if you ever wanted a fresh prince to become darker, Bel Air may be for you.

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

(Radio Canada)