A CONVERSATION WITH...

Morgan Cooper: To Bel-Air and Beyond

The creator behind the Fresh Prince-inspired fan film that led to the Will Smith-backed Peacock series Bel-Air walks Boardroom through the story of his industry journey so far.

As Morgan Cooper grew up in South Kansas City, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was a portal to something more.

“I remember being in kindergarten. It was something all the kids in my school watched. It was something my family watched,” the writer and filmmaker told Boardroom. “To see a Black family on screen in that way and all these differing opinions; you think of Will and Carlton, two young Black men who live completely different lives and had different lifestyles and [the] different ways they viewed the world. Those types of images were important. Seeing Black wealth on screen, that was something I’d never seen. None of us had — especially growing up in the Midwest.”

“To live through what you’re watching and what you’re seeing them experience through those stories they were telling, it’s truly stood the test of time,” he continued. “You can never do that again. That was lightning in a bottle, and so incredibly iconic. That show meant everything to me then, and it still does to this day.”

Cooper could never have conceived that his own spin on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air would be his ticket to Hollywood a generation later.

In March 2019, Cooper proved that lightning really can be caught in a bottle twice. He uploaded to YouTube his dramatic reimagining of Fresh Prince in the form of a three-plus minute trailer — shot over eight days in 2018 with a cast of Kansas City actors. Titled Bel-Air, the self-funded $25,000 short has over 7.5 million views as of this writing.

One of those viewers was Will Smith, who was instantly impressed with the young filmmaker‘s vision.

Less than 24 hours after Cooper uploaded the video, Will and Jada Pinkett Smith’s production company, Westbrook, Inc. reached out to him. Will took Cooper under his wing. Cooper went from fan to peer.

“I definitely take an entrepreneurial approach to my work,” Cooper said. “I think you have to, this day and age. With there being less of a barrier of entry for storytellers and filmmakers in particular, you have to do something really special to cut through the noise.”

It may have appeared to have happened overnight, but the viral moment never tells the whole truth. As a teen, Cooper was “in the hood shooting $200 music videos” to cut his teeth and pay rent in South KC. He spent years living vicariously — soaking in the world around him and refining what stories he wanted to add to the world’s discourse. It was from there that Bel-Air the television series born.

In September 2020, Cooper and Smith announced that Peacock had given “an unprecedented two-season order” to Bel-Air.

The first season wrapped March 31. Cooper has series writing credits (both “written by” and “developed by”) for all 10 episodes, plus one directing credit.

Jabari Banks stars as the new Will Smith, headlining an impressive new-look cast that also includes Adrian Holmes as Uncle Phil, Cassandra Freeman as Aunt Viv, Coco Jones as Hilary, and Olly Sholotan as Carlton.

But none of them would’ve had the chance to flourish on Bel-Air, to influence yet another generation, if Cooper hadn’t paired his childhood fandom with his gift for filmmaking. If he hadn’t bet on himself and uploaded a 210-second video to YouTube.

For the latest installment of Boardroom’s “A Conversation With…,” Morgan Cooper walked Boardroom through his creative journey — from the moment he bought his first camera to the moment his life changed forever, and what he plans to do with a platform that’s bigger than ever.

Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

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MEGAN ARMSTRONG: Let’s go back to the beginning. You were 18, and you got your first camera at a Best Buy in Kansas City. What was your inspiration?

MORGAN COOPER: I graduated from high school in 2010, and that was just a very unique time for creatives — and especially young creatives — because all of a sudden, these incredible storytelling tools such as DSLRs were accessible. My first T2i was, I think, $1,200. I scraped every penny I had to get it. My dad loan me $100, but I could get it. And I really took that camera and built a career from it.

What an amazing time where the barrier of entry for storytellers is no longer money, so to speak. We all have cell phones, we have smartphones, DSLRs. All these fly cinema cameras are accessible. You can get these tools in your hands and tell your story.

I’m all for the democratization of storytelling. I think it’s important. These are tools of liberation. To tell stories and get people to understand these worlds that they may not other otherwise explore.

MA: What was your intention, in terms of storytelling?

MC When I bought that camera, it was two days later where I said, “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.” I didn’t grow up around filmmakers. I didn’t even know filmmaking was a career that was possible, growing up in Kansas City.

Kansas City, as a whole, has a very small filmmaking community, but in terms of Black filmmakers, there weren’t many people to aspire to where I’m from. And so, we looked to the Ernest Dickersons, Spike Lees, John Singletons. All the movies we watched growing up: Boyz n the Hood, Set It Off, Belly. All the music videos we watched on 106 & Park. That was really where a lot of the influences come from.

That’s what my dad watched. That’s what I watched with my cousins and my family. And so when I got that camera, it felt like two days later, I’m racking focus on the salt shaker in my 500-square-foot apartment in South Kansas City, and I said, “This is what I want to do.” It quickly turned into learning as much as I can about this craft and just getting good at the craft and putting in the time to cultivate my skill set as a storyteller. Once I was developing my footing in terms of having more of a technical style, it’s like, I’m connecting the dots. 

I’m like, Okay, I understand this type of quality of light now. What does that mean in terms of telling the story? It quickly became, I want to tell the stories that no one else will tell. … I think oftentimes in this world, a lot of people in studios rest on convention. For me, it’s like, let’s throw all that out and do something that people haven’t seen before and change the game.

MA: What’s the difference between the version of you sitting here now and the 18-year-old that just picked up a camera for the first time?

MC: The difference between myself now and 18-year-old me, I’m much wiser. But at the same time, I look at that 18-year-old me and I really admire him because he didn’t really know what he was doing, but he let his passion really drive him and fuel him. Just the sense of belief that he had and the fearlessness. That’s something I always have tried to retain — that same spirit, and the same passion, and the same heart, but now with the 10,000 hours. Now with the skill set and experience to be able to take that same passion and turn it into something that really stands the test of time. Something that is a vehicle to change lives.

I always say: If I die and the only thing they say about me is, “Morgan Cooper was a good filmmaker,” then I didn’t really do anything with this passion — with my gift as a storyteller. I want them to say, “Through his passion and through the things that he made, he changed lives, he empowered others, and he was able to allow [others] to express their passion through his work.” There’s a young boy and girl in my hometown who have no idea they’ll be filmmakers. To be someone that could give them that opportunity to change their life in the way my little T2i changed my life, that’s what it’s really all about to me. 

MA: You specifically put your Bel-Air clip on YouTube to remove any barrier to entry. Where do you think you would be in your journey as a filmmaker if social media and YouTube didn’t exist?

MC: I don’t know. That’s a good question, man. We’ve got these amazing tools. Like I said, DSLRs and camera phones, and these really fly, inexpensive pocket cameras. [They] are these amazing ways to tell stories. Social media is also a great way to get the art out, [and] YouTube, having these platforms where you don’t have to pay to put it out. You just put it out, and you can do it your way. I encourage anybody watching, if they have a story that they’re just dying to tell and it’s within you, find a way to make it happen.

I think something else that served me very well as an artist is not getting overly obsessed with the result after the thing is made. Just focus on the thing. Sometimes, people get so focused on the result. That taints the process because, Oh, to get a million people to watch, I have to make it this way —no. Focus on that idea that kept you up every single night. What about that idea continues to keep you up at night? Focus on that, and then people will feel the intention behind it. They’ll feel the pureness of the vision.

Bel-Air wasn’t the first short I made. My first short film was called “Room Tone.” I made it for $5,000 that I put up, shot it over a weekend. I wasn’t a screenwriter, but I said, “I got a little story I want to tell.” It did well. It allowed me to cut my teeth. Not a lot of people saw it, but I got better. It put me in position for the next few ideas. One of them was Bel-Air, and the rest is history.

MA: What you’re talking about is what you said before: the 10,000 hours. What do you think about this age of instant gratification? Do you think that affects the creative process?

MC: The concept of instant gratification can affect a lot of people’s creative process. I think it puts people in a place emotionally, as it pertains to the art, to where they’re like, “Man, if it doesn’t take off right away, maybe I’m not good at it.” And that’s not true.

Art is a contact sport. It’s yards after contact. You catch the ball, you gonna get hit. That’s a part of it. You take that first hit, but you keep the feet moving, and you just get a little bit better every single time. That’s been my key to success. You notice all these people that you were running with, they’ve stopped because maybe they became frustrated with the process or they were like, “Man, it’s not taking off.” You keep running, and then you look up, and there aren’t a lot of people left running. I encourage anybody out there: If you got that dream, and you got a camera, just pull it out and get a little bit better every single time. Stay consistent with it. It takes time.

MA: What is something that you want people to take away after watching a series you’ve worked on?

MC: I hope people take away when they watch something I’ve created is a feeling of surprise — in a good way. I think the magic of film and television is the ability to surprise people. When people give an hour of their time to watch something you’ve made, I think the least that we can do is give our all to it and approach the art with integrity. My hope is that people walk away knowing that Morgan Cooper is a guy who really gives his all to the art.

MA: At this moment in your career, what is something distinct you want to be remembered for?

MC: When you look at Bel-Air, it’s such a big idea. It’s what I like to call an impossible idea. Even five, six, seven years ago before the idea hit me, if someone had ever told me that idea, I’d be like, “Nah.” One, it’s probably going to be really bad, and two, there’s just no way. You can’t touch that.

In my mind, I hope to leave the mark where they say I was a creator that brought the impossible to the screen in a way that was surprising, in a way that subverted expectations and really hit people in an emotional place in a positive way.

All the other ideas that I’m working on right now, I’ve got six show ideas that I’m super excited about. My first feature is on the horizon, and I’m in conversations for that right now. I’m very excited about that. I got four other movie ideas. I’ve just got a lot of very big ideas. It’s just the beginning.

MA: And what do you ultimately want to be remembered for in the big picture?

MC: When it’s all said and done, I hope to be remembered as an artist who gave more than he received — who through his passion created lanes and avenues for others to express their talent and change their lives in a positive way. That’s how I measure success: how many lives I’m able to change in a positive way. If I was just to make art, and maybe it wins awards or makes some money, and that’s it? That wasn’t much of a life at all.

Whether I’m around or not, TV is gonna get made. Films are gonna get made. People are gonna watch something. And so, from that standpoint, what’s left is how many lives you could change through the art. It could be in some bigger ways and some simpler ways, right?

I can’t tell you how many young Black artists have DMed me and said, “Wow, seeing your journey has inspired me to tell my story.” How many people from my hometown — so much music and art I was able to put in Bel-Air just by being intentional about how I’m making it. Putting in those calls and saying, “Hey, I’ve got talent in my hometown. I want the world to see it.” That being a way to change lives, change my city for the better, and give people hope. That’s all I want to do, man.

MA: Do you have any advice for specifically young Black creators that hope to follow in your footsteps and make a lane for themselves?

MC: I remember when I first started my filmmaking journey, and I always felt like I was on the outside looking in. Once again, I didn’t grow up around filmmakers. There weren’t filmmakers in my community. It wasn’t a thing we thought was possible. You’re watching filmmakers around you, and usually, it’s people that don’t look like you.

You feel this need to try to fit in to be accepted. You dim your light when you do that. There was a period of time where I really struggled with that as I was trying to get into the business. I remember waking up one day and realizing that the magic was in me all along. You just have to listen to it, and you have to be fearless in how you create. Say, “Who’s gonna tell my cousin’s story? I have to tell that story.” I think of [2018 short film] “Room Tone,” telling that story of a Black sound mixer in Kansas City. That was a sound mixer I worked with. Who’s gonna tell that story if I don’t tell it? It was on my heart to do it.

There is no perfect time to make something. You just gotta leap and bet on yourself every single time. People will bet on you if you bet on yourself. If you’re not betting on yourself, it’s gonna be hard to find people who are willing to take a chance on you. You have to demonstrate that you’re willing to bet on yourself because that demonstrates belief. That demonstrates confidence. That’s very important, and that could be tough as young Black creatives.

We work in an industry that wasn’t created by us [or] for us at all. We’ve always been on the outside looking in as storytellers and having other people try to tell our stories. We have to be the authors of our own futures, of our own destinies, of our own stories. We have not only a right but a responsibility to be bold in how we tell our stories. That’s the magic of it: our texture, our flavor. We drive culture. Never forget that.

MA: Fresh Prince has been so integral in Will’s career and his life. He will always be the Fresh Prince. How do you see Bel-Air as something you can take with you forever?

MC: It’s an honor to be a part of The Fresh Prince legacy through my reimagined vision. But I’m no more passionate about Bel-Air than any other idea I’ve had. It was just the vision that happened to hit. I keep the same energy with everything I work on; I’m just so thankful that Bel-Air has been a vehicle to be able to create these future projects. It’s been such a great vehicle for our brilliant cast to shine and change their lives — provide them with opportunities beyond their wildest dreams. And that’s all I want. This cast shines so bright, and I love them so much. We’ve really built a family through the show, which is something I always wanted.

My hope is that everybody involved is able to take this experience working on this show and transform it into the rest of their careers. For [Bel-Air to be] a beacon of hope for the next generation of storytellers and young actors.

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