Forget what you know about The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’s Hilary Banks, because in the 2022 Bel Air remake, she’s not who she used to be. As much as I wanted to be her in the ‘90s, I’d imagine if I met Fresh Prince’s Hilary Banks in real life, she’d look me up and down before making a snarky comment about my outfit. The new Hilary Banks from the Bel Air remake? She’d throw me a compliment before asking if I want to be on her IG Live.
That’s what’s so refreshing about Bel Air — the grittier reimagination of the ‘90s classic. The characters have all the elements we love from the original show, but with a freshness that just feels right decades later. The new Hilary isn’t dumb, shallow or egotistical — no where near it. Actress Coco Jones made sure of that, reinventing her by adding layers to the loveable character; she’s still that bougie ‘it’ girl, but one we’d actually want to kick it with. It’s brilliant.
The new Hilary Banks was created from a familiar place
After only a few minutes of speaking to Jones, it was easy to see how she shaped the new character. Her own personality is vibrant and bubbly, hinting at that lightness that Hilary Banks has always held, but with the ability to hold her own. “How I play [her] is really just being who I feel like I am. I feel like I went against the grain when it was really intimidating. A lot of times people don’t really continue in the industry — it’s not worth it enough,” she says, a nod to her uphill journey in entertainment. “They change their priorities and they go to something else that makes more sense, that’s less scary at times. But I just have to see my life play out a certain way. I know I’m always working hard for that outcome. I know that’s my choice, [my] desire, and I feel like Hilary is the same.”
I just have to see my life play out a certain way. I know I’m always working hard for that outcome. I know that that’s my choice, desire, and I feel like Hilary is the same.
At only 24 years old, Jones has already been in the industry for more than a decade, so it’s no surprise that she has the mental toughness to see her dreams through. She got her start at only nine years old when her talent caught the eye of Disney execs, turning into the chance to compete in Radio Disney’s The Next Big Thing singing competition. But, she didn’t catch her big break until starring in Disney’s Let It Shine with big names like Tyler James Williams (Everybody Hates Chris), Trevor Jackson (Grown-ish), Courtney B. Vance (Lovecraft Country) and R&B superstars Chloe x Halle. “I think with everything that you do for a long time, you get better and better with time,” she says of her Disney start. “Because I’ve been doing this for such a long time — you can, of course, always learn and always grow — but I do feel like it’s kind of like second nature to me in a way. Being on set, being in a studio, being on stage — all these things just feel normal to me.”
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Her career seemed to be on the up and up when Jones signed a record deal with Hollywood Records where she dropped her debut single “Holla at the DJ.” But, the high was short-lived because in 2014, she was let go from her label. Turning to platforms like TikTok and YouTube, Jones decided to get it on her own, amassing a following of millions of followers, hooked on her relatable stories, songwriting sessions and willingness to get vulnerable with her fans.
Then, came a video very much unlike the others, titled “What Really Happened,” an open and raw account of her experiences in the entertainment industry, determined to make it despite being both dark-skinned and a woman with boundaries. “It’s been difficult for sure, and I think to not take it personally because I know that even if I work just as hard as another girl, certain things are out of my control as to why that person would book that job over me,” she says of her perspective on race and casting. “But your love has to be stronger than the opposition with anything that’s good. It’s going to come with a lot of trials, but they’re definitely there.”
Coco Jones on why Black stories and representation matters
And when it comes to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, the issue of colorism can’t be swept under the rug. By season four of the original show, Will’s Aunt Vivian (played by Janet Hubert) was abruptly replaced by lighter-skinned actress Daphne Maxwell, sparking conversations about why they kept the character but changed her skin tone. To this day, fans still reminisce about the ‘dark skin Aunt Viv,’ marking a memorable part in the show’s history. So, when Bel Air premiered with actors and actresses playing Will’s family who had predominantly darker skin (including Aunt Vivian), many fans of the original show breathed a collective sigh. It seemed like a way of acknowledging that problematic casting choice from years past while being inclusive of marginalized talent with non-stereotypical roles.
“The more Black stories that are being told, the more Black actors get to play the roles and then the more someone watching is inspired to create, or to audition or to keep pursuing. It’s a cycle in a way, but it starts with opportunity,” Jones says of the impact of representation in the industry. “And I think especially with a show like Bel Air that shows, in such an exquisite way, Black families in love and the reality of being this family. I think it’ll just open more doors and continue to make stories like this relevant.”
The more Black stories that are being told, the more Black actors get to play the roles and then the more someone watching is inspired to create, or to audition or to keep pursuing. It’s a cycle in a way, but it starts with opportunity
‘The Fresh Prince’ is a classic, but ‘Bel Air’ doesn’t mess with it
Not only is this Bel Air relevant, but it’s fresh and wildly innovative. So much so, that skeptics have doubted whether a “grittier, darker” version of The Fresh Prince could be pulled off. For Jones, it’s easy to see how this new story is brought to life in a way that works. “A comedy is typically more lighthearted and you don’t really get the time to touch on deeper issues as much as you can in a drama where the center of it is those raw, ugly truths, those secrets and scandals,” she says. “I think with this show, we really open up each character and get into the depths of them, the scarier sides of them.”
And if after that, you still think this classic should be left alone, Jones agrees with you. “A classic should be left alone. It’s not like we messed up a classic. We’re just making it better. If there’s something iconic, you want to pay homage to that, and that’s what we’re doing. “