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Carla Banks-Waddles: The Fresh New Princess Behind ‘Bel-Air’

Last Updated: July 1, 2023

This story is part five of Boardroom’s Women’s History Month series highlighting bold figures forging distinctive paths in the worlds of sports, business, culture, and entertainment.
Part I: Morgan DeBaun | Part II: Valentina Shevchenko | Part III: Dany GarciaPart IV: Gina Prince-Bythewood

The Peacock series’ showrunner spoke exclusively to Boardroom about honoring the original Fresh Prince while giving female protagonists more ownership of the story.

In West Philadelphia born and raised…

If you had a childhood like mine, these are the first few words that come to your mind when you think of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. We all remember how old we were, whose house we were at, and who we were with whenever we saw Will Smith, Alfonso Riberio, Karyn Parsons, Janet Hubert, Joseph Marcell, and the late James Avery come across our screens.

Now, the time has come for a younger generation to be introduced to not only a key staple of our adolescence, but Black culture and entertainment through the reimagining of what we’ve come to know as Bel-Air and the Banks family.

Introducing Bel-Air, the cult-favorite reboot starring Jabari Banks as young Will and the introduction of newcomers across the industry as they take on a new generational spin on The Fresh Prince filled with suspense, drama, and edge-sitting plot twists in romance, friendship, and family. As the writer, showrunner, and executive producer of Peacock’s reintroduction of the beloved ’90s sitcom, Carla Banks-Waddles does not take the opportunity to be part of Bel-Air lightly.

“I mean, it’s a dream,” Banks-Waddles told Boardroom. “Like, who would not wanna come on board?”

As someone who is already under an overall deal at Universal Television, working on Bel-Air, which is produced under Westbrook Studios and Universal, working on the project seemed like a “natural fit,” she said. In addition to the nostalgic connection that the Black community has to the original Fresh Prince through its characters, the Banks family’s dynamics, and representation on television, Banks-Waddles was honored to step into a role on the reboot that channeled her creativity in more ways than one as a showrunner, writer, and executive producer.

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“I feel like the parent who’s splitting their time, feeling guilty for not being in one place when they’re spending time in another,” she told Boardroom about her ability to juggle her multiple roles and responsibilities on Bel-Air. Banks-Waddles noted her growth over the course of nearly 20 years in the industry in and out of writer’s rooms, which she referred to as the “heartbeat” and “driving force” of the shows that she’s worked on. And while striving for the right balance can be a lot while constantly ensuring that all proverbial trains are running and that all voices in the room are fostering mutual trust, she says that the key to her success is delegation.

“It’s like ‘delegate or die.’ You’ve got to release a lot of that control, which is tough for me ’cause I am a bit of a control freak. You try to keep all eyes on all things at all times, but the reality is you can’t, and you just have to sort of empower people that you trust to do the things that you need to get done,” she said.

“Yo Homes, to Bel-Air (and Beyond)!”

In recreating a believed franchise as Bel-Air, Banks-Waddles, her fellow writers, and the rest of the crew wanted to prioritize keeping the essence of The Fresh Prince alive while also creating a new universe for Generation Z and millennials. We’ve seen shows defeat the dreaded “reboot curse” one after another, from Peacock’s Saved By The Bell and Netflix’s Fuller House to Paramount+‘s iCarly and HBO Max‘s Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin and Gossip Girl, but how was Bel-Air going to make sure to that it was true to what resonated most with fans of the original show?

Kayla Oaddams/FilmMagic

“It’s a tall order because so many people did not want us to futz with it,” Banks-Waddles admitted to Boardroom about the task of bringing the beloved show back to life. “The beginning, middle, and ending of that original series was so perfect, so I think people were rightfully nervous about what was to come and what we were going to do with it. I think a lot of the writers, including me, were just big fans of that, so I think there was a natural respect and understanding of what people were feeling of, like, ‘don’t mess it up.'”

Banks-Waddles admitted that the pressure was real — especially because the original Will Smith-led series was “such an important thing to the culture.” However, that foundation of respect and desire to hold the sacred legacy of the show so closely to their hearts allowed her and the Bel-Air team to move forward with authenticity and genuine intentions.

From the love and support of the Banks family demonstrated through Will, Carlton, Uncle Phil, Aunt Viv, and the gang to the power of comedic relief and effortless humor, Banks-Waddles wanted to make sure that the writers, producers, and cast kept the same energy of the show we had first fallen in love with. In maintaining the spirit of The Fresh Prince, the team nonetheless wanted to take proper risks in acknowledging how the characters would be if they grew up in 2022 — who are they now, and how would the new dynamics mesh with what resonates culturally in today’s society?

“We sort of held our breath to see how people would respond to Season 1,” she said. To her surprise, an enthusiastic audience was fully able to wrap its heads around Bel-Air as sufficiently different from The Fresh Prince and avoid falling victim to preconceived notions of what the show would be. “Surprisingly, people were able to really get on board with what we were doing, so that felt good.”

For Season 2, which debuted on Feb. 23 and runs into April, the Bel-Air writers and crew had the opportunity to explore some new avenues — namely, a direct crossover between the original and the reboot with the resurgence of an old favorite in Tatyana Ali, the OG Ashley Banks. Ali did not return to Bel-Air as some sort of time-traveling version of the beloved character, however, but as Ms. Hughes, a teacher and mentor to the modern-day Ashely portrayed by Akira Akbar.

“In that first episode, when she’s writing on the whiteboard as she turns around, it’s just such a great moment. It gives me chills every time,” Banks-Waddles said as she smiled right through the phone.

The imperative of Ali’s character was to serve as not just a celebrity cameo, but as a mentor to the younger characters both on- and off-set, a dynamic that’s exemplary of the breakthrough power of the Black women in this show.

“We love to include that OG cast in this re-imagining, but never [want] them to feel forced or wedged. It’s so organic because this character of Ms. Hughes, and by Tatyana playing that, she touches on everybody in the Banks family and the Bel-Air Academy family,” she said. “To see OG Ashley and Present-day Ashley and Tatyana and Akira in the same scene and fist-bumping each other, it was just so poetic on so many levels. She just brought so much to the show and so much to that dynamic that just felt special.”

(L-R) Jimmy Akingbola, Cassandra Freeman, Olly Sholotan, Coco Jones, Adrian Holmes, Carla Banks-Waddles, Morgan Cooper, Jabari Banks, Simone Joy Jones, Akira Akbar, and Jordan L. Jones (Amy Sussman/Getty Images)

Introducing the Fresh Princesses of Bel-Air

At the center of both The Fresh Prince and Bel-Air are Will Smith and Jabari Banks as the dual incarnations of central protagonist Will. But this time around, the show has something for the ladies that wasn’t always there in the original.

With Aunt Viv, Lisa, Hillary, and Ashley — portrayed respectively Cassandra Freeman (Luke Cage), Simone Joy Jones (Anything’s Possible), Coco Jones (Disney Channel’s Let it Shine), and Akira Akbar (Captain Marvel) — the women in the show are no longer taking a back seat to their male counterparts. From Hillary’s career advancement and self-love journey to young Ashley as a fierce queer Gen-Z’er using her voice in the advocacy space, women are truly at the forefront of the narratives that make Bel-Air what it is.

“Knowing that Will is the center of the show, everybody’s gonna surround him with that love and make sure that he’s gonna be okay in this new space as a fish outta water,” Banks-Waddles said. “Looking at the women that we have and the nine characters that we have to service in every single episode, you look at who we have and go, how do you not write for them, too? How do you not give them fuller lives and storylines? “I just really wanted, especially [in the] second season now that everybody has met the family and been introduced to them in Season 1, to take the time this season and give everybody a story — especially the women — and making sure that they have agency and that we’re making room to tell everybody’s stories beginning, middle, and end.”

Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Beyond being a woman, Banks-Waddles has experienced what it’s like to be “othered” as the only Black female writer in the room relegated simply to being the voice of the best friend, the wife, or other secondary characters on the shows that she has worked on. While she would often pitch shining more of a spotlight on the wife, sisters, and other female leads in these shows, the other members of her teams would opt to give them “special episodes” rather than a full story arc.

Now, she has the opportunity to work on a show where she gets to send the women who otherwise would be left in the background right to the forefront, amplifying their voices to see just how far they truly carry if given even half a chance.

“To be able to creatively be on this show, [to] be able to fully tell those female stories, that also feels like a dream [and] something I don’t take for granted,” Banks-Waddles said.

Specifically for Black female and femme-identifying writers who turn to her for inspiration, Banks-Waddles wants to encourage young women to use their voices to get themselves out of the cycle of pigeonholing and stereotyping of being a writer specifically for a production’s background players. “We just have so many stories to tell,” she said.

As a Black woman in the boardroom of entertainment and television, the showruner wants to encourage young women to mute the doubting, skeptical voices in their heads and the naysayers that tell them that their stories are only as important as male characters will allow them to be.

“I think it’s just important for us to be here, take up space, and say our stories are important too, and we have something to say,” she said. “I think the female audience really resonates with those stories with Aunt Viv and with Hillary. Even just with their mother-daughter dynamic last season, people want to see those voices and those stories reflected on television.”

Dice in the Mirror… and in the Boardroom

Banks-Waddles describes the Bel-Air writers’ room warmly as a productive environment through which her team works to define emotional throughlines to tap into their characters and the story of the show. “I always say it sounds weird, but the characters sort of speak to you. They tell you what their stories are gonna be and so we don’t have to jump through hoops and jump and reach for a lot of storylines creatively ’cause they’re right there in front of us,” she told Boardroom.

Will Smith and Jabari Banks attend Peacock’s New Series “BEL-AIR” Premiere Party (Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic,)

Especially for the second season of Bel-Air in light of the first season’s finale — no spoilers, but you’ll want to check it out — Banks-Waddles and the writers wanted to tell stories from a “truthful place” and consider the emotional response that the last episode evoked from audiences.

“We really do that for every episode,” she said. “This is where we left them emotionally at the end of the last episode, so how do we carry that through episode to episode?”

As a writing team, the voices behind Bel-Air always create long-term goals regarding storylines and character development for the broader scope of the show and where they want each character to end up when it’s all over. “We have a longer, big-term arc for where we know we want the characters to go this season, so we kind of have this north star that we’re working towards as well,” she said. And whether it be Bel-Air or Fresh Prince, Banks-Waddles wants the audience to not only recognize that the show highlights Black excellence but is a demonstration of the non-monolithic Black experience.

This intentionality of depiction extends beyond just writers, executive producers, or even Banks-Waddles herself as showrunner, but to the evolving legacy and impact of these shows themselves, no matter the network, cast, or generational demographic.

“There was a time where we only saw ourselves in one way on television, and the power of that imagery is just so important. In this show, being able to tell so many points of view on the Black experience will bring something different,” she said. “As a young Black kid from West Philly coming into this world, that is very different than what Carlton looks like as a young Black man growing up in this world.”

As she concluded regarding the show’s unique potential now and for the months and years ahead:

“Within this show, we’re able to sort of culturally see the different sides of different Black people and what those experiences are like, and that even though we’re so very different and raised in different neighborhoods, different churches, different schools, you can still find some common ground and speak the same language just as Black people, but still very different points of view. We all don’t think the same or have the same politics and just being able to have all those conversations on the show just makes it such a richer experience.”