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The New Prince of ‘Bel-Air’

Morgan Cooper went from striking gold on YouTube to reimagining ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’ for Peacock. But he’s only just beginning. 

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

If you talk to Morgan Cooper for long enough, the concept of manifestation is bound to come up. The writer-director-producer believes in doing the work—and will even use the words “Mamba Mentality” in reference to getting it done—but he’s also willing to put his dreams out into the universe and ride the wave of positive thinking. And by the final weekend of January, Cooper was hoping the stars would align and create the perfect scenario on February 13. The Kansas City, Missouri, native hoped that his beloved Chiefs would be playing in the Super Bowl in Los Angeles—the city he currently resides in—on the same night that Bel-Air, the dramatic rendition of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air that Cooper developed with Will Smith, was premiering on Peacock. “That’s what I was trying to manifest,” the 30-year-old Cooper says the day after the Chiefs’ loss in the AFC championship game.

Things may not have worked out for the Chiefs, but the debut of Bel-Air is proof that Cooper’s career is playing out exactly as he believed it would.

In a rapidly changing media landscape, Bel-Air is a rare achievement. The series, which reportedly received a two-season order from Peacock off the strength of a pitch alone, was the subject of a bidding war between Peacock, HBO Max, and Netflix. The anchor of that pitch was a three-and-a-half-minute trailer Cooper produced and released on YouTube in 2019, which reimagined one of the definitive sitcoms of the 1990s as a drama. The fight that prompts Will’s mother to ship him from West Philadelphia to the lavish Los Angeles enclave of Bel-Air leads to his arrest after police find a gun in his backpack. The only reason he avoids jail, as his mother reminds him, is because of his wealthy uncle’s connections. But this rendition of Uncle Phil isn’t the irritated-but-ultimately-loving father figure James Avery played in the original series—he is, in his own words, “the law.” And the antagonism between Will and his privileged cousin Carlton isn’t playful, it’s downright hostile. The tonal shift—and stunning production values—made the trailer into a sensation: It has more than 7 million views to date on YouTube and landed Cooper on the radars of Ava DuVernay and Smith, whose role as the original series’ focus helped him seamlessly transition into one of the biggest movie stars in the world. Soon enough, Cooper went from being face-to-face with Smith to working side-by-side with him.

Viral fame, and all of its precarity, allows people (even those of indiscernible talent) to turn the social capital they’ve amassed into career opportunities. You could be one Twitter thread away from sitting in a writers’ room or one meme away from producing a TV show. It’s not standard procedure by any means, but it’s possible. Yet while the glow of popularity can take you far, dedication and talent still tend to shine through. Cooper may have created something eye-catching, but he doesn’t see himself as more than that. “It’s so funny, people see the trailer, but there’s a reason the images look the way they do,” he says. “That’s eight years in the trenches doing that every single day.”

It may seem like Cooper, who’s as pensive as he is straightforward, emerged from nowhere—some obscure filmmaker from the Midwest who parlayed attention into writing, producing, and directing a TV series. Cooper, to little surprise, sees it differently. “What may seem like overnight success to some people is really years of cultivating this craft to be able to write, direct, and shoot this thing, and to edit … you can’t fake filmmaking,” he says with a laugh. “When [the trailer] took off, I just felt like I was doing exactly what I should be doing. It wasn’t a surprise for me—it was something I was very thankful for and excited about—but at the same time, I put in the work for years for this moment, and I knew I was ready. When people ask me, ‘How are you so calm?’ It’s because I’m ready.”

Until recently, there wasn’t anything resembling a film scene in Kansas City. People from there who wanted to break into the industry felt like they were on the outside looking in. “Only once in a while was there the occasional film that would come through from Hollywood and shoot on location in Kansas City for the look of something,” says writer and producer Dayna Lynne North, a Kansas City native who worked on the television adaptation of Soul Food and Veronica Mars before joining Insecure. “At that time, Kansas City didn’t have its own thriving film and television community. So by the time I was finishing high school, I knew it was what I wanted to pursue, but I also very much knew I was going to have to leave Kansas City—especially as a Black woman in the ’90s—if I really wanted to pursue it.” North ventured to Los Angeles and graduated from the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, which offered her a path into the entertainment industry.

That path didn’t feel tangible for Cooper, who was born in Kansas City and lived in Grandview, Missouri, and Kansas City’s Martin City neighborhood before settling in Lee’s Summit as a teenager: “I didn’t even know that career was a possibility,” he says. Regardless, Cooper was drawn to the medium. He grew up watching everything Spike Lee directed, along with the work of John Singleton, Allen and Albert Hughes, and Ernest Dickerson—the latter of whom he idolizes. “Just seeing the level of thoughtfulness he brought to Juice and how authentic and raw it felt, it was very cathartic—even at a young age,” Cooper says of Dickerson’s 1992 debut. “Growing up in Kansas City and thinking about us running around felt similar to what we saw in that movie. It was different, but in a way it felt like he was telling all of our stories about being young and Black.”

Let Cooper tell it, his career began when he purchased a Canon T2i camera from Best Buy at the age of 18. After graduating from Lee’s Summit North High School in 2010, he elected to focus on filmmaking while many of his friends and classmates were basking in their youth. “I left all the party stuff [behind]; there was no time for that,” Cooper says. “I had to really put my head down and focus on getting better.” Directing low-budget music videos became his de facto film school education. He found his way into the local rapper circuit, because they were the only people willing to pay him for his work. “The rappers were the only people who gave me a chance to express myself and believed in me enough to direct their projects,” Cooper explains. “I’m not ashamed of that experience. I don’t look down on people who shoot music videos, because I’ve been there.”

Earning $200 here and $300 there allowed Cooper to pay his rent, but he was also getting invaluable training. Directing music videos taught him how to work in high-stress situations, how to manage people under duress, and how to get creative without a lot of resources at his disposal. In addition, Cooper used what little free time he had left to perfect his method, sharpen his eye, and develop his own style. “I would go home and practice lighting for three hours until 4 a.m., then get up at 10 a.m. and shoot another video. That was my life,” he says. “It wasn’t just shooting a music video—it was shooting a music video, practicing lighting, doing camera and lens tests, and scouring the internet for information and knowledge. Reading American Cinematographer. Reading Painting With Light by John Alton … That was my film school—all in this 500-square-foot apartment in South Kansas City.”

After perusing Vimeo to see what other people were making, watching a plethora of YouTube tutorials, and reading everything about filmmaking that he could get his hands on, Cooper’s “hodgepodge film school” experience began to pay off. “All of a sudden, I’ve got enough [money] and I’m able to sell old gear,” he says. “Then I have enough money to flip it, get better gear, and now I’m starting to attract different clientele. Now I’m taking the money and shooting my own commercial spec projects. I have my foot in the door.” By 2019, Cooper had graduated from working as a director of photography on commercial shoots to writing and directing.

He takes his work seriously, but he’s never self-important when talking about his journey or influences. He exudes genuine passion when describing them. Aside from Dickerson, who Cooper connects with because of their roots in cinematography, he cites the legendary photographers Gordon Parks and Roy DeCarava—“just in terms of the thoughtfulness of their images and the way they captured Black life before it was trendy to do so.” He’s fascinated by how the Dutch masters Rembrandt and Johannes Vermeer painted light. Painter Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series, which depicts the Great Migration, is seared into Cooper’s mind, serving as a permanent point of reference. Overall, Cooper wants audiences to have the same visceral connection to the art that he does. And as far as he’s concerned, it’s his responsibility to facilitate that. It’s why he considers visual language and narrative to be one and the same: For him, it’s all about chasing a feeling. “You have to feel that shit in your bones and be willing to live and die by every frame.”

The Bel-Air trailer is frequently referred to as “dark” because its mood stands in such stark contrast to the original series. Cooper remains amused by that description. “Some people might consider it dark because of my flavor of cinematography, how it was lit, and the themes explored, but for me, it was just grounding this in drama in a way that’s authentic and adding parts of my life and things that I’ve seen,” he says.

For what it’s worth, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air had its share of dramatic moments. Will and Carlton experienced racial profiling by police, Carlton accidentally overdosed on Will’s speed, and procured a gun for protection after Will got shot. The show even tried to reckon with the culture shock and class tension that came from dropping a kid from a working-class background into a predominantly white world of affluence. But The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was still only capable of exploring these issues to an extent because of its genre and format. Making Bel-Air a drama amplified the urgency of Will’s situation and the class conflict, particularly between wealthy Black people and their working-class counterparts. Where Will’s fish-out-of-water experience was previously a source of humor, the Bel-Air trailer made it a point of contention as he dealt with the elitism that insulated Bel-Air, which included upwardly mobile Black people brandishing their success as both a badge of honor and a weapon against those with less.

It’s clear that there are realities about race and class Cooper wanted to acknowledge, but he says he wasn’t trying to get on a soapbox to make some grand statement about society. He just wanted to make something that felt authentic. “We can’t talk about a young Black man’s journey in America without addressing some of these important issues, it’s just embedded into the fabric of our existence and identity,” he says. “You’re going to explore these very real situations: What are the things Will would see in his day-to-day life?”

Cooper’s big idea was filmed over the course of six months on a $25,000 budget. All of the Philly scenes were filmed in Kansas City with local actors, while the Bel-Air scenes were filmed in Burbank, California. Cooper understood that it had the potential to make an impact upon its March 2019 release, but says he wasn’t chasing that. “We can’t predict how people are going to react to things; there are great things that appear on the internet everyday that go nowhere,” he says. “So for me, it’s more about the process than the result. Because if you stay focused on that, then usually the result can be better than what you imagined. And that’s what happened.”

One month after the trailer’s release, Smith posted a video of him meeting with Cooper and discussing the project. According to Cooper, Smith told him that he’d heard 20 years worth of Fresh Prince reboot pitches, but wasn’t moved enough by any of them to want to proceed. “He also appreciated the fact that I didn’t wait around,” he says. “I did it—and he respected that.”

By May 2019, Cooper had relocated to Los Angeles. He didn’t want to rest on the laurels of Bel-Air, so over the course of a few days, he wrote the script for a short film called U Shoot Videos?. Set in Kansas City, the 42-minute film tells the story of Moji, a young filmmaker who directs low-budget music videos for local rappers and dreams of getting into advertising. Cooper named the main character after a young filmmaker who he’s mentoring and had similar experiences, but the film is a semi-autobiographical look at that period of Cooper’s life. “It’s all based on real people in my life and experiences I saw,” he says, noting that one crucial moment was based on a story the real Moji told him. “I renamed [characters] because I’m not trying to reopen any cases.” The film was shot, edited, and released in under two months, making its way to Vimeo in August 2019. It became a Vimeo Staff Pick Best of the Year nominee and won the Tribeca X Award for Best Feature at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival, showing even more people that Cooper could create outside of pre-existing intellectual property. Meanwhile, Bel-Air was in the process of transitioning from sharp concept to full series.

In September 2020, Smith announced via his YouTube channel that Bel-Air had received a series order from Peacock. This was new territory for Cooper because it was a much larger production with more voices offering their input. Despite the benefit of more resources, the creative process can become challenging with more cooks in the kitchen. But Cooper says that having the trailer serving as “the North Star for the creative” simplified things because it was such a strong proof of concept. “We had a three-and-a-half-minute production that was on screen, that went viral and got this whole party started,” he says. “That made it easier for everybody to get on the same page of how this thing looked, sounded, and felt.”

Aside from the clarity of his vision, Cooper’s attention to detail and ability to communicate exactly what he’s looking for helped put the cast at ease about playing well-known characters. Cassandra Freeman, who plays Vivian Banks, says Cooper reassured her that she had the right qualities for the role. “I really didn’t think I was right for this role, because I felt like Vivian Banks, in my mind, was sort of claustrophobic because there’s only the Janet Hubert and Daphne Maxwell [Reid] way,” Freeman says, adding that Cooper even gave her a playlist featuring Janet Jackon’s “I Get Lonely,” Sade’s “I Couldn’t Love You More,” Erykah Badu’s “Didn’t Cha Know,” and Jill Scott’s “Golden” to help her understand this version of Aunt Viv. “He was very clear: ‘No Cassie, your vivaciousness is what I want her to be. I want your authentic truth.’”

Skepticism about Bel-Air is understandable considering the affinity for the source material, the overabundance of content in recent years, and the number of reboots that have been commissioned as a result. IP reigns supreme in Hollywood, and networks and streaming platforms will jump at the opportunity to sell nostalgia to viewers. Two seasons of Boomerang aired on BET. Cobra Kai, an extension of The Karate Kid story, is now a hit on Netflix. A Saved by the Bell revival premiered on Peacock in 2020. But Bel-Air expands the world that Cooper built in the trailer.

As an hour-long drama, Bel-Air has the space to dive deeper into the characters, explore their interpersonal dynamics, and examine the nuances of each scenario the show presents. A new area code and newfound economic advantages don’t free Will from the problems he left behind. Each of the Banks children feels a different kind of pressure to measure up to their accomplished parents. A closer study of Vivian and Phillip’s relationship unearths the compromises the former has made for the latter’s career advancement. In addition to class conflict, the show addresses generational strife and the animosity between Black people and law enforcement. Every moment isn’t heavy, but Bel-Air also isn’t simply Riverdale with a veneer of “Black Excellence” and all that’s divisive about that concept. The show will likely face scrutiny for some attempts to modernize the original, but that doesn’t make the process it took to get to this point any less impressive. Cooper says it was challenging at certain points, but he expected that. His patience and openness to collaboration helped to smooth the production over. “It was just about inviting people to bring their superpowers to the vision to build something great,” he says.

Cooper is appreciative of where Bel-Air has taken him, but he’s eager to work on more original projects. He says he has five movie ideas and eight additional show ideas that he’s excited about. He wants to adapt U Shoot Videos? into a “half-hour dramedy” to continue Moji’s story, and he’s working on Black Coffee with North, Sony, and Gabrielle Union’s production company. The series, which was originally slated to air on Quibi before the service folded, follows a former athlete turned barista who moves back to Kansas City with plans to open a coffee shop in his old neighborhood, only to learn that the neighborhood isn’t thrilled about his vision. “I humbly hope I’ve been a mentor to him in the process of executive producing and showrunning for TV, but he’s absolutely a mentor to me,” North says. “I jokingly call him ‘sensei’ sometimes in terms of my pending directorial career.”

Unsurprisingly, Cooper has a list of people he wants to work with in the future: Issa Rae, Donald Glover, Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monáe, Winston Duke, Brian Tyree Henry, and cinematographer Bradford Young. He’s also become enamored of limited series (“There’s a definite ending, so you’re able to go really deep with characters,” he says) and has a cast in mind for one. It’s time for another manifestation. “Yahya [Abdul-Mateen], LaKeith [Stanfield], Bryan Cranston, Jay Ellis—it’s another one of those ideas that I just feel in my bones,” he says.

Cooper is committed to doing the work, but he’s willing to leave some things up to the cosmos. The goals are ambitious, but really, they’re no more unrealistic than anything he’s already accomplished.

Julian Kimble has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Undefeated, GQ, Billboard, Pitchfork, The Fader, SB Nation, and many more.

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