Will Smith's new "Bel-Air" Aunt Viv on reboot fears: "I really didn't want to let the culture down"

Cassandra Freeman appeared on "Salon Talks" to discuss how to solve everybody's problems by focusing on Black women

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published April 3, 2022 11:00AM (EDT)

Cassandra Freeman as Vivian Banks and Jabari Banks as Will Smith in "Bel-Air." (Tyler Golden/Peacock)
Cassandra Freeman as Vivian Banks and Jabari Banks as Will Smith in "Bel-Air." (Tyler Golden/Peacock)

"Who wants chocolate chip cookies!" I yell, walking into the house after completing a 16-hour workday, "All you can eat!" 

My daughter runs straight toward me in pure joy. My wife, who works extremely hard as well, becomes instantly irritated for two reasons. The first is that my snacks go against the healthy-organic-green-vegetable diet she created for our daughter, and secondly, she loves snickerdoodles, and thinks that chocolate chip cookies are horrible. Now I don't do this every day because I'm not a terrible person, however, I do have to catch myself, monitoring my actions to make sure that I don't go against what she is trying to implement. More importantly, I make sure my 90-hour work week doesn't overshadow her dreams, goals and ambitions.

This often happens after babies arrive. Too many times we see men, even in the healthiest relationships, remain silent while our patriarchal society minimizes their spouses down to two roles: wife and mother, as if that is all they are capable of. Women deserve careers, the ability to follow their dreams, and to work 90 hours a week if they want. Cassandra Freeman tackles this problem in Peacock's hit "Bel-Air," a imagining of the beloved sitcom "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" through a new, dramatic take on Will Smith's journey fom the streets of West Philadelphia to Bel-Air, California.

In "Bel-Air," Freeman, known for her work on shows like "Luke Cage," "Atlanta" and "The Last OG," plays Aunt Viv – not the college professor and dancer like in the '90s sitcom, but a talented visual artist who put her career on hold to raise her children and support her ambitious husband. Freeman joined me in New York on the set of "Salon Talks" recently to talk about why she initially hesitated at taking the role, the journey Aunt Viv goes on this season and how the show overall is challenging how different generations define Black excellence.

Watch my "Salon Talks" episode with Cassandra Freeman here or read a Q&A of our conversation below to hear more about how she stepped into the role of a modern-day Aunt Viv.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

How is Aunt Viv looking 20 with all her kids being 20?

Isn't it funny how every generation's 40 looks different? You know, this is 40 now.

Back of the day, the NBA players used to look like they were 65, had hairlines back here.

No, for real. You know people talk about Janet Hubert when she did this role, she was in her 30s when she did it. I'm like,"I'm older than Janet was y'all." Go any older, you have to get a 60-year-old.

Speaking of Janet, you stepped into some really big shoes. There was drama in the original series when Janet departed the show. What was it like just walking into that?

Many people recreate roles over and over again

I think for those of us who grew up with "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," it's like tattooed on our subconscious, right? To even think I would have to attempt to walk in her shoes or Daphne Maxwell's shoes is just unreasonable really. The way I thought about it was, I'm from the theater world, and in the theater world many people recreate roles over and over again. That's how I approached this, otherwise I would've been too shell shy.

Take us to that moment when you first realized you were going to get this role? Were you into the reboot, were you not into the reboot?

Well, originally when I first saw Morgan Cooper's first original trailer that came out three years ago, I didn't even want to watch it. I was like, why are you touching a classic? This thing is done. Why are we touching it? And then when I finally saw his version, I was like, oh, OK, I missed out on our opportunity. When it became an opportunity that actually came to my door, then I was like, but I ain't Aunt Viv, like, what are we talking about? OK, I'm not Aunt Viv.

When finally offered me the role, I remember my manager calling me up and he was screaming. He's

I really didn't want to let the culture down

like "You're the new Aunt Viv," and I was like, "Did he say I'm Aunt Viv?" I would've started screaming, but instead it became like this daunting moment. The breath in was like excitement, and then the breath out was like, oh, because I really didn't want to let the culture down.

I feel like it was a big opportunity, but with a lot of challenges connected to it. As soon as we started this process, Morgan Cooper said, "You're not here to fit shoes. You're here to create new shoes." And then I was like, "OK, let's go do it."

I think that's the main thing that fans and potential fans need to consider that these characters that you guys created are not the old characters. We're reimagining the world through the eyes of a drama instead of a comedy.

I think so too. The way that they cast it, I feel like everyone brings an essence that's familiar from the other world. Then there's something very fresh about it all at the same time. I feel like we try to hold onto the legacy of these characters, but try to ground it in today's reality.

Take us into this new world of Bel-Air.

How I like to talk about our show is, if you saw the original, then the original feels more like the cocktail dinner, the introduction to these characters and our show is more like the in-depth diary journals of who these people are. Some things have changed. Like Aunt Viv's not a dancer now, she's a visual artist, and Carlton, instead of him being like a 1990s sitcom happy Negro, in this, you start to see what is the cost of being surrounded by so many microaggressions and being the only Black kid in such a very white mainstream school that he went to. And then same thing, Uncle Phil, instead of seeing him scream at everyone, every time he gets angry, you get to see the warmth. I just feel like it's a warm bath of entering into our new world of Bel Air.

Do you prefer working on comedies or does drama suit you more?

I always say comedy and tragedy are like next-door neighbors

Listen, I love both equally. I used to be a stand-up comedian too. So comedy comes very natural to me too, but drama's great too. I think if you're a comedian drama gets to go even deeper because hopefully you're not so one-note because you understand all of the subtleties that's within comedy and tragedy. I always say comedy and tragedy are like next-door neighbors. For there to be comedy, there's tragedy and for there to be tragedy, there's some comedy there. Think about Richard Pryor and Dave Chappelle. What they talk about is quite tragic, but they just do it with enough of a lilt that it feels light.

I think you have both in the show, like there's definitely some laughable moments and I think it's a really good balance, especially in comparison to the way a whole lot of Black stories have been told on television. You've got the super street stuff, but then you have this Bel-Air family who is the polar opposite of that.

I think it's even deeper than that, whether you get micro or you pull out more, but I can speak for my character. I feel like with the original Aunt Vivs, they're matriarchs and they're strong and they're smart Black women. Period. I really reject the notion that Black women can't be vulnerable, fragile. We're weak, we're tender, we're loving. And I love that Aunt Viv gets to have so much of the season.

She spends so much time giving to other people – who's I actually watering her? I really appreciate, at

"This is Us," with some hip-hop swag connected to it.

least in her storyline, you get to see this woman still becoming herself. In the first few episodes is her trying to be Michelle Obama basically, like the perfect campaign wife, but that's not who she is. I'd hope people see her and see you can always begin again, but also excavate whatever else could be there. In general, the entire show is a show about family and it's warmth and it's loving. I say "This is Us," with some hip-hop swag connected to it.

But isn't that real? The whole idea of being a woman and feeling like your talent and your skills may be minimized to support your husband as an American tradition. I feel like the show does a great job of showing how Aunt Viv processes that. I think it is going to open up a bigger conversation about womanhood and what that means because she is a mom, because she does have her husband running for office. Does that mean she should never pick up a paintbrush again as an artist?

That's exactly right. I love that whole episode when they're in the hotel room and they have a deep conversation about the roles that they both acquired and also how he didn't necessarily push her to continue being an artist. But she always pushed him to be who he was going to be. And she pushes all her kids to be who they're going to be. But again, no one did that for Viv.

In general, the show is trying to show that there's a warmth that exists in Black love and in Black excellence and when it comes to Black women, especially her storyline, Black female visual artists. We could cross out the visual artists, almost in every single discipline.

If you take care of Black women's problems, you take care of everybody's problem

Play a little game next time you're in some rare air. Find the Black woman in the room and go talk to her. You'll find that she has so many degrees, such a long resume, but where she is, is suppressed. And this is true for women across the board, but it's really true for women of color, especially for Black women. I always say, if you take care of Black women's problems, you take care of everybody's problem — even the white men problems are taken care of.

Aunt Viv is someone who was thought to be as brilliant as Mica Lee, like some of the greatest artists of her time. But we don't even take that in. Her husband doesn't even hear that. She was compared to one of the greatest artists of her generation. And today those women are like legacy-makers today. Her husband doesn't stop to say, "Don't put down your paintbrush." I think that's really the bigger question that culture is not even talking about that. Some of the culture is because I look at Twitter, but in general, no one stops. If she were a man and it was the man who was the genius, and then he stopped, everyone would say, "Oh man, you got to come back. We miss you." No one does that for her. It happens so rarely. And you see a moment of that in the show where someone says, "You did that mural." And her husband is like, "Yeah, yeah. She used to be anyway." That is what it is like to be in her body and to be in a lot of Black women's bodies.

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It gives us space as viewers to understand the relationships that she may develop. We're not giving any of the show away, but when you said nobody waters her, I was like, maybe Michael Ealy is trying to water her a little bit.

Yeah, maybe a little. Just to think for 15 years no one's come in to say how brilliant you are in something. And this man comes in "Yo, you better tend to your garden or somebody else will." The part of the garden he's watering is her artistic heart.

Bel-AirCassandra Freeman as Vivian Banks and Michael Ealy as Reed Broderick in "Bel-Air." (Peacock)I think there's another dynamic. In that conversation about womanhood and the sacrifices that women make for family all of the time. I would do everything in the world for my wife, but I'm not going to act like I don't go and work a 20-hour day, and then I come in the house and my daughter's like "Daddy, the superstar" and after Mom has been doing all of these astronomical things all day, figuring out how to make peas good and stuff that like that, I'm just going to be like, "You know what, eat the chocolate chip cookie and the earth will spin." Right?

That is such a Dad response. Oh my God.

I know, I'm part of the problem. And the good thing is that I can admit it.

That's a big step.

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The other dynamic here in the show is Hilary. She is coming into herself as a woman, and her ideas might not align with what her mom's ideas are. Could you talk about that dynamic?

I love that storyline. I'm surprised there wasn't more commotion that people weren't upset that Viv was such a hard hand in Hilary's life those first few episodes. But what that really, to me on another whole subtle level shows the differences that exist between two different generations. I mean my generation, I'm 42. I come from the same generation as people who are 50- and 60-year-old Black women, which is, you go to college, you get as many degrees as you can, you work your way up through the system, you assimilate as much as you can, you get along until you can finally create some space of change, right? This new generation is not here for that. They're like, no, I need change today. I ain't even going to go to the office today until change starts. Actually I'm going to blow up the whole company. It's such a different way.

College takes too long.

There's a whole other way to deal with the oppression that exists in this country for people who are minorities and for women. The way this generation is dealing with it is saying we're going to call a thing, a thing. Now my generation, we don't do that. My generation's like, "Mmm they're trying their best. Let's go through this way." So it's a generational discussion that's happening. Viv doesn't really understand social media and the opportunities that exist in social media. So it's a couple of conversations happening at once. 

And it's almost the same thing, right? It's like, Phil's not making that extra effort to understand what needs to be done, what his wife can do in the art world. And then Viv is not really fully understanding how her daughter can really blow up this social media world and become one of those people that get paid $10,000 per post.

Yeah, but also, if you have Black excellence, do you want your daughter to be the one who blows up on Instagram? Does that sound like Black excellence? Black excellence, the definition for Viv is, go get a degree and go work your way up through a system, working your way up through social media doesn't sound as elegant. How do you tell your friends that at a party?

Is there any space for Will Smith to pop into this alternate universe?

He's the producer. He can pop in any way he wants to.

Will, as Viv's long lost brother, ex . . .

Oh, poor, poor Uncle Phil. How do you deal with that? That's . . .

It's the ex, but the ex is actually Will Smith. So it's like Will Smith playing the real Will Smith?

Oh my . . . You heard it here first people. Will Smith would come on as my long lost lover. Will's like "y'all we ain't doing that." I would think Will would come in and he would act, he would actually come in and act, he wouldn't be himself, but it would be simple for him to just show up as Will Smith. I think especially in the last episode, you start to see some familiar faces who live out here in the world of pop culture. So you never know.

Do you think there's space to re-hash more shows? And if there is, what would you like to see?

Listen, I'm the wrong person ask. Like I said, when I first heard they were doing this show, I was like, "What, it don't need to be touched!"

But now you see the success.

I'm sure this will create a whole new genre of reboots. I think what everyone is really feeling or attached to in ours is that, it's not just that we rebooted the show, it's the hands in which that reboot went into. I think that the hands that it went to just happened to be a young guy who was 27 when he came up with that first thesis trailer, like to give it to someone who is now into hip-hop at the level that hip-hop exists today. It's very different than if you gave it to an executive, an old white man in his 60s, and he's trying to do it, no shade, but guaranteed. The hands are really important. So I'd love for people to actually have the conversation. 

And why is it a success? The success exists because Will Smith was innovative enough to, and trusted Morgan Cooper enough to say, "No, the new generation has to take it over." Who cares how much experience he has, because Will Smith didn't have experience in TV and he made it work. And then they made sure the showrunners, the heads of departments, the writers, like everyone lives in the African American community in some way. And that's a rare thing to happen in Hollywood on TV.

I think executives want to believe that nobody feels it. We always feel when something's been whited out because someone didn't understand or translate the culture. I think this show, we laid so many layers of the culture from Philly to LA, that you can feel from the music, from the way we walk and talk, and from our clothes . . .

It's beautiful.

They're not dumbing down Blackness

You're just like, they're not dumbing down Blackness. It's just, yeah, that's just Black folk.

Down to the artwork in the house. Ferrari Sheppard.

Listen, Ferrari Sheppard. Brilliant, brilliant. We have a lot of amazing artists in that house that you could just screenshot and stop. And every artist in that house, whether they're from Philly, Florida, Virginia, Haiti, I mean, it's a huge wash of people and photographers work that lives in that house.

We already know that Bel-Air is coming back for another season. What we also want is, what's next for you?

I filmed this show six months – five or six months in Los Angeles, but I live here in Brooklyn, New York. I'm just happy to be home, and to be a mother. I have a 3-year-old I'm digging back into. That's amazing. I'm developing a rom-com because I really want to do a comedy. There's this great comedy from Goldie Hawn that I'm thinking about maybe rehashing.

Also, I have a tech startup that's for the entertainment industry that'll help us all collaborate and make our life so much easier.

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By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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