‘Bel-Air’ cast addresses book banning in Season 2 story


From left to right, Adrian Holmes, Courtney “Coco” Jones, Akira Jolie Akbar, Jabari Banks, Jimmy Akingbola, Olly Sholotan and Cassandra Freeman return for "Bel-Air" Season 2. Photo courtesy of NBC Universal

From left to right, Adrian Holmes, Courtney “Coco” Jones, Akira Jolie Akbar, Jabari Banks, Jimmy Akingbola, Olly Sholotan and Cassandra Freeman return for “Bel-Air” Season 2. Photo courtesy of NBC Universal

LOS ANGELES, Feb. 23 (UPI) — The cast members of Bel-Air said they’re pleased that Season 2, premiering Thursday on Peacock, addressed the timely issue of schools pressuring teachers to remove certain books from the curriculum.

At Bel-Air Academy, Ms. Hughes (guest star Tatyana Ali), is fired for giving Ashley (Akira Akbar) books that weren’t on the approved list. Cassandra Freeman, 44, who plays Ashley’s mother, Vivian, said the episodes illustrate power structures in education.

“Ms. Hughes doesn’t really follow the rules,” Freeman told UPI in a recent Zoom interview. “But then, it really makes you wonder who makes the rules in the first place.”

Ashley’s brother, Carlton (Olly Sholotan), and cousin, Will (Jabari Banks), help stage a protest to support Ms. Hughes. Carlton finds himself inadvertently nominated by his classmates to lead it.

While this overwhelms Carlton, Sholotan, 24, said he’s proud of Bel-Air for addressing this and other topical issues.

“With this show, we’re having these difficult nuanced conversations about things that have real life ramifications – everything from the teaching of certain subjects in schools, to mental health, to identity politics and sexuality,” Sholotan said.

Bel-Air is a dramatic reimagining of the sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, which starred Will Smith. The sitcom also tackled subjects like drugs, gun violence and racist police.

In both versions of the show, Will moves from Philadelphia to Bel-Air, but in the drama, the move is to keep Will safe from the wrath of a serious drug dealer.

Banks, 24, said he related to his character’s willingness to join the protest despite any administrative punishments that could result.

“I don’t think Will was thinking about the repercussions at that moment,” Banks said. “He was thinking, ‘I don’t want to make my cousin, Carlton, look bad. Also, I want to be there for my other cousin, Ashley.'”

Vivan and her husband, Phil (Adrian Holmes), support the kids’ protest. Phil, an attorney, advises the protesters on their legal rights and the lines they can’t cross.

“I’m proud that they’re thinking this way, but I don’t want it to backfire and bite them in the butt and affect them in a negative way,” Holmes, 48, said of Phil’s attitude toward his kids. “He’s there to support and help as best as he can and educate them at the same time.”

Freeman said the parents also have a longer term perspective on social justice causes. They know that even fights for just causes sometimes lose, and Vivian doesn’t want her children to become discouraged if they fail to get Ms. Hughes rehired.

“She even says in one of the episodes, ‘Maybe there’s actually a bigger battle that we should be fighting,'” Freeman said. “It’s not just about this teacher. It’s about maybe the system itself.”

The trouble for Ms. Hughes begins when she assigns Ashley to read Robyn C. Spencer’s The Revolution Has Come: Black Power, Gender, and the Black Panther Party in Oakland to read for extra credit.

Bel-Air Season 2 already was written and filming before Florida banned an AP course in African-American studies this year.

Showrunner Carla Banks-Waddles said the Florida case proves stories like the one that surrounds the fictional Ms. Hughes are still relevant.

“We knew we were tapping into something that felt real,” Banks-Waddles said. “To then see this real world story playing out right now just feels very validating that we are telling the right stories, and that the right conversations are being had.”

Bel-Air is still entertainment first, said creator Morgan Cooper, 30, who made a 2019 short portraying Fresh Prince as a drama. Smith offered him the chance to develop it as a real series.

Cooper said the Ms. Hughes story reflects real world issues. However, first and foremost it drives the characters of Ashley, Carlton, Will and their parents.

“It was important to tackle this topic through the prism of character versusbeing some soap boxy thing,” Cooper said.

Cooper added that Bel-Air shows the teen characters discovering what they believe in, along with “the support they have from Viv and Phil to take a stand for this and be the change that they want to see.”

Akira, 16, is still in high school. She said Ali, who played Ashley in the Fresh Prince sitcom, told Arkia she was on the right path with her portrayal of the character they shared.

Ms. Hughes assigned Ashley extra credit because she believed those books could enrich her. Akira said she appreciated “Ms. Hughes’ giving Ashley that advice to keep going forward and not to focus on that situation in particular.”

The protest storyline also intersects with a story about Carlton attempting to wean off his anxiety medications. The high stakes protest, in which Carlton confronts the school administration, leads to more panic attacks.

“You want to know what’s more nerve-wracking than political activism?” Sholotan said. “Nothing is.”

Sholotan, who said he researched substance dependency, mental health, anxiety and depression before Season 1 of Bel-Air, noted that setbacks show how complicated those conditions can be.

“Will really pushes him out of his comfort zone,” Sholotan said. “But then, in dealing with his own mental health, we see how that’s not as easy as just waking up and putting one foot in front of the other.”

New episodes of Bel-Air premiere Thursdays on Peacock.

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