Bel-Air and the Flawed Logic of ‘Black Excellence’

Several recent Black shows have leaned into glitzy melodrama and decadent escapism. They also feel completely out of step with their core audience.

Jabari Banks and SteVonté Hart standing in front of the Banks mansion in "Bel-Air"
Greg Gayne / Peacock / Getty

A pair of massive double doors swing open, and a teenage Will Smith (played by Jabari Banks) walks into his aunt and uncle’s palatial Bel-Air home, where a big-dollar cocktail-party fundraiser is taking place. The soulful hip-hop song “A Lot,” by 21 Savage, soundtracks the scene. “How much money you got? (A lot),” the lyrics recite, seemingly narrating Will’s awe as he clocks the material evidence of the Banks-family fortune. “Yo! I got some rich-ass relatives,” he says. This scene is from the first episode of Peacock’s Bel-Air, one of the most anticipated Black television shows of this year and a dramatic reboot of the ’90s sitcom staple The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

Later in that same episode, the Banks children, Hilary, Carlton, and Ashley, are groaning about the family photo they know is inevitable. Then, Carlton asks his sisters, “What could go wrong with a photo op with us in it? I mean look at us, pure, unadulterated Black excellence.” To which Hilary responds: “Period.” The siblings understand that in order to represent their family—one of the few Black families in their ultra-affluent community—in the manner that their parents and school administrators expect, they must be exceptional in appearance and behavior, a reality that they both embrace and detest. Dramatic tension builds over the season as their outsider cousin, Will, struggles to find his place in their world.

Bel-Air is part of a cohort of recent shows that explore Black prosperity. Fox’s Our Kind of People, a Martha’s Vineyard–set prime-time melodrama, delivers the dueling-families spectacle of 1980s fan favorites such as Dynasty. And OWN’s soapy The Kings of Napa centers on a family that owns and operates a successful vineyard in California’s vaunted Napa Valley. These three shows differ in plot, tone, and production value, yet they’re all fluent in the language of “Black excellence,” or the long-held belief among African Americans that they must work twice as hard for half as much as white people receive. The term first comes up in Our Kind of People during a heated exchange between the rivals Leah (Nadine Ellis) and Angela (Yaya DaCosta); Leah accuses Angela of being a social climber who can’t compare to the island’s elite, of which Leah is a part. Describing her circle, Leah says, “We don’t just have a summer fling with Black excellence. We are Black excellence.” In The Kings of Napa, the matriarch, Vanessa King (Karen LeBlanc), tells her family members about her and her late husband’s original vision for their business. “We said that people were going to see Black excellence in motion: wine, style, cuisine, all of it.”

These shows are obsessed with cash and glamour, reminding viewers in nearly every scene that African Americans, too, have generational wealth and sophisticated taste. For some Black viewers—the presumed core audience for these series—the glitzy theatrics provide welcome escapism from a world rife with anti-Black violence. But these shows also feel out of step with the cultural zeitgeist and with an audience that has been showing signs of Black-excellence fatigue for some time. Since 2020, aversion has grown in particular toward the ideology that links exorbitant wealth and conspicuous consumption to social progress for African Americans. This thought pattern mandates that African Americans work twice as hard to get … things: mansions, designer clothes, private jets to private islands. Many Black capitalists have long argued that buying power and entrepreneurship are the path to racial and economic justice. But the impact of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and its concomitant economic effects for Black communities, as well as the nationwide protests after the police killing of George Floyd, led to public disavowals of “excellence” and free enterprise reaching a fever pitch.

In this social and political landscape, a show such as The Kings of Napa might feel insensitive. At one point, a character says, “I love rich Black folks, especially really rich Black folks,” before turning to a family member and asking, “What do you think the slaves are saying?”—implying that their luxurious lifestyle would make their ancestors proud. Bel-Air also revels in ostentatious consumption, as reflected in its hip-hop soundtrack. Music by Meek Mill, Bobby Shmurda, and Moneybagg Yo pays homage to the original show’s hip-hop roots while the lyrics loudly link Black excellence to displays of wealth.

A fitting addition to the track list would have been Jay-Z and Kanye West’s 2011 song “Murder to Excellence,” which spoke to a moment of optimism for many Black Americans. In it, Jay-Z raps: “Black excellence, opulence, decadence / Tuxes next to the president, I’m present … I stink of success, the new Black elite.” The podcast host and cultural commentator Sylvia Obell put the song’s lyrics into a national political context. “There was that slight high between when [Barack] Obama won [his first presidential election, in 2008,] and before Trayvon Martin got shot [in 2012] where I think hope was the drug that we were all riding on and Black excellence felt like, Oh, maybe we can be anything!” Obell told me. The killing of 17-year-old Martin at the hands of a vigilante was a stinging realization for many Millennials like Obell: “Black excellence is not enough to keep us alive … So why am I trying so hard to be excellent? Maybe I can just be me.”

Still, the old narrative gained traction again a few years later. In a 2017 episode of the podcast Toure Show titled “Puffy: How to Make a Billion,” the artist and entrepreneur Diddy defined Black excellence as “when we tap into our magic.” His magic involved making tons of money and socializing with other members of the elite, notably at the exclusive Roc Nation Brunch, hosted regularly by Jay-Z and Beyoncé. By the January 2020 gathering, Jay-Z had become a billionaire. Images from that day captivated street youth and emerging Black professionals alike, who concluded that success—whether in the underground economy or in the boardroom—would give them unprecedented buying power. Diddy and others who had “started from the bottom” seemed to believe that their place on a Forbes list was a sign of racial change, that their hard work and success in the free market would benefit the entire race. Black millionaires and billionaires, they declared, could fund racial-justice initiatives and create new jobs.

And then, two months later, the world shut down. Nearly 10 million people lost their job in the United States that year, and Black and brown people were among those hardest hit. Meanwhile, billionaires got even richer during the pandemic. As the death toll and unemployment numbers rose, conversations about anti-capitalism seemed to reach a rare level of fervor. #TaxTheRich became popular on Twitter. People wrote about capitalism’s ties to Black-labor exploitation, a connection that dates back to the global slave trade. Books such as Destin Jenkins and Justin Leroy’s 2021 Histories of Racial Capitalism grappled with the historical antecedents of today’s tensions with the 1 percent. The emphatic point of these discussions was not that Black people should live in poverty, but that raising up a Black millionaire class does not result from or lead to economic justice, no matter how hard its members have worked to earn their assets.

Examining wealth distribution, instead of income, as a framework for studying economic disparities shows the stark gap between Black and white Americans. Today, according to a recent Deutsche Welle documentary on America’s Black upper class, only 2 percent of Black families are millionaires. In other words, most are not living the lavish lives that people like Diddy represent. “Excellence as a framing of opulence is not Black or white. That’s American,” Darrick Hamilton, a professor of economics and urban policy at The New School, told me. Racializing excellence forces Black Americans to measure their success according to a capitalist system that was reinforced by Jim Crow racial logic and bolstered by anti-Black economic policies. “I want to structure the society where excellence is something we applaud and strive for, but it’s not a necessary ingredient just to survive,” Hamilton said.

For all its fixation on excellence, Bel-Air does occasionally show signs of self-awareness. In the episode “Canvass,” Will and Carlton debrief about why Uncle Phil’s campaign to become district attorney isn’t resonating with working-class voters. Will tries to explain the hood’s distrust of “the system.” Carlton dismisses Will’s take, saying, “Apathy isn’t a solution.” Will doubles down: “Being asked to choose between two shitty options is bullshit.” But these insightful moments are few. The gravitational pull of the show is toward the Bankses’ lifestyle. The sets, the costumes, and the level of access and power they connote are supposed to be so enticing that viewers would want to trade places with Will. The show suggests that Will’s new life in Bel-Air is a step up for him as a kid from West Philadelphia—despite the fact that his mom is a financially independent nurse and Will was already college-bound. In other words, the writers have reused the popular hood-kid fish-out-of-water narrative on a middle-class kid, making the already unsophisticated class critique feel further off-key.

Though there will always be an appetite for shows about unattainable riches, Obell believes that audiences today want more balanced treatments of African Americans and money in pop culture. “Who wants to see these extreme levels of wealth displayed at a time when people are just struggling to feed their families?” Obell asked. She noted that Starz’s drug-lord drama franchise Power is highly watched Black programming. This popularity is not solely because viewers love to consume African American street-hustler tropes but also because those shows are more willing to have an unvarnished conversation about capitalism, the American dream, and the struggles of the working poor. Queen Sugar, which will air its final season this summer, has been one of the best shows in recent history to take on race, class, and generational inheritance. It has modeled, particularly in its first four seasons, how a show could address these topics with sincerity, without naively perpetuating myths about money as racial progress or denigrating characters because of their financial position.

Further, many Gen Z African American viewers may not want to be preached to about respectability and uphill battles. Some have embraced the soft life, or a commitment to a low-stress, “high-vibrational” lifestyle, as a quiet protest against the “they sleep, we grind” ethos of Black excellence. Bel-Air, with its young cast, has a better chance of pivoting in its second season than The Kings of Napa and Our Kind of People (neither of the latter two has been renewed or canceled yet). I imagine that as Bel-Air finds its footing, viewers will see it engage directly with the concept of prioritizing rest and well-being (Hilary seems primed for such a plotline) and more conversations about class that draw from COVID-era debates. The series’ co-showrunners, T. J. Brady and Rasheed Newson, told Collider that in the first season they were “nervous” that they’d “go too far” with a story line in ways that the original producers would disapprove of. “There are so many pieces on the board” for Season 2, Newson said. “And we’ve gotta grow.” Perhaps they can depart from the rigid framework of class that they’d inherited from the original sitcom. Otherwise, Will’s “rebellious” act of wearing Retro Jordan 5s in a Ferragamo-loafers world might not be enough to keep up with an audience that’s done some growing up of its own.