Morgan Cooper’s story is the stuff independent Black creators’ dreams are made of.
What started out as a short film, inspired by the underlying darker themes of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, soon became one of the most viral clips of the year (it currently sits at 7.4 million YouTube views). Now, it has become Peacock’s buzziest new breakout drama series, Bel-Air, with a major co-sign from Will Smith himself.
“When the idea came to me, I knew it was something special,” Cooper said of his original short film. “This day and age, you can never how people will receive what you make. All you can do is focus on what you’re making. So that’s what I did.”
Focusing on the art of filmmaking yielded an end result that intrigued fans so much that the clip spread like wildfire. It wasn’t long before it hit Will Smith‘s inbox…the next day, in fact.
“It was less than 24 hours when Will’s company Westbrook reached out,” he revealed. Of course, having springboarded his concept off of one of the Academy Award-nominated actor‘s most legendary properties, Cooper wasn’t quite sure how that interaction was about to go.
“At first I thought ‘Damn, are they about to hit me with a cease and desist?'” he laughed. “But they didn’t. Instead, they reached out and said ‘We’d love to meet with you in Calabasas’ the next day.”
Though Smith was in Miami shooting Bad Boys 3 at the time, he excitedly Facetimed with Cooper asking what he wanted to do with the project from this point forward. The director was able to pitch Smith directly on his vision for a 60-minute drama series. Enthralled with the idea, Smith flew him to Miami for an informal development session, they shook hands and agreed to go into business together.
This Cinderella story for the Kansas City-based director naturally yielded some nerves. With major network involvement comes major changes…and an artist loves to hold on to their vision.
“Initially I was a little nervous, as I think anybody probably would be in that situation,” he said. “But TV is such a collaborative medium, and that’s just a part of it. And I think that’ the beauty of it. You have all these different perspectives coming together in service of the vision.”
Despite Peacock taking the reigns on the project, Cooper was delighted to find that as both Executive Producer and ideator of the original concept, his work was the blueprint by which the writing and production team crafted the show.
“Something that was really helpful throughout the writing process was that we had my shirt films as a North Star. So everybody knows the flavor, they know the feel, the tone of the visualization. That got everybody on the same page very very quickly.”
Cooper and Peacock were sure to take Bel-Air down a new road rather than trying to too-closely copy the comedic source material. After all, there will never be another Fresh Prince.
“It was always about going on our own journey,” Cooper said. “For one, you could never make The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air again. What they did is so incredibly iconic and just lightning in a bottle.”
“For me, it was about looking at the sitcom and these characters and asking the question, ‘What if we took this scenario and the spirit of these characters and grounded it in modern-day life? It’s something that I hope will stand the test of time and stand on its own in the same way the sitcom does.”
Bringing more real, raw, authenticity to this modern, dramatic reimagining of the story of Will and the Banks family was always an important factor in Cooper’s vision.
“This series, in my mind, is really a love letter to the culture,” he said. “It doesn’t feel ‘Hollywood.’ When you hear that ‘What We Do’ by Freeway, you know it’s real. That’s real Philly energy right there. When you see D4M Sloan, Eazy the Block Captain, these are very specific people that were curated in a way that you don’t see in Hollywood. That very hand-made, intentional approach is what I think makes the show very very special for viewers.”
Bel-Air streams Sundays on Peacock.