For the second straight season, Carlton Banks has had the most complex character arc on ‘Bel-Air,’ and I’m totally here for it
Written by B87FM on May 4, 2023
Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.
I’m a huge fan of the OWN series “Queen Sugar.” Ending in 2022 after a seventh season that introduced us to a story about a Black family that we’d never seen on television before, it also introduced us to who I’d argue is the most complex Black male character of all time, Ralph Angel Bordelon. Ralph Angel (sometimes referred to as Ra, and played by Kofi Siriboe) was hyper-masculine, yet extremely progressive in his views about masculinity. He was a devout family man and father who was concerned about legacy while also, early on, prone to committing crimes that might separate him from his family. He became an organizer, community builder and a leader. He let his son, Blue, play with a female doll named Kenya, was protective of his gay friend and ensured that friend had space to be himself. Ralph Angel often zagged when you thought he would zig.
I once told Anthony Sparks, the showrunner and a writer on the show through its first six seasons, that they’d managed to craft and write the most nuanced Black male I’d ever seen on television. The television distinction is important. With multiple seasons and episodes per season, you can spread your wings in ways you can’t do in a movie. But it also had to be intentional. With Ralph Angel, they created a character who got to evolve, grow and experience various facets of Black manhood and humanity. It was riveting to see.
“Bel-Air,” the reboot of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” where Anthony Sparks was the showrunner for the second season (perhaps coincidentally, but perhaps not) is heading in a similar direction with Carlton Banks, played by Olly Sholotan. And it’s absolutely fascinating.
In the first season of “Bel-Air,” I literally went from HATING Carlton to him being my favorite character on the show because of his growth and evolution as a spoiled, drug addicted, rich Black kid who loved the status quo and was opportunistic enough to let his white friends use the N-word around him because he just wanted to get along for his personal gain. By the time the first season ended, the tide turned. I wanted Carlton to win and be OK. I understood him better and appreciated his struggles as a child of privilege trying to navigate his world of prosperity as a popular minority, but also the introduction of his much cooler, system-bucking cousin from West Philadelphia. Carlton and Will found — in each other — confidants and a camaraderie that allowed them to stand tall in the face of adversity. They might be rich, but they’re Black boys, and they needed each other…and knew it.
The second season though, Carlton took a complete 180, succumbing to the pressures of being part of the Black circle at his school and taking a stand. He struggled to navigate his goals against the goals of his people, and that forced him back into drugs, caused him to fall back into old habits and sent him back to old friends who kept him around as a token. Carlton went from being one of the Black students of Bel-Air Prep to being one of the students who happened to be Black who hung with the rich, super-privileged white kids because that’s where he identified.
We watched Carlton move from low to high, all the way back to low in a way that no other character on the show got to fully realize. And the entire time, you still want to root for Carlton, but Sholotan’s acting actually made me dislike Carlton…again. I mean, give Olly Sholotan all the awards for portraying Carlton in such a fashion that literally forced me into emotional reactions to a television character.
And look, every character on the show has battles and evolutions to go through. Geoffrey, played by Jimmy Akingbola, reunited with his son. Hillary’s (Coco Jones) relationship struggles with Jazz (Jordan L. Jones) and ex Lamarcus (Justin Cornwell) are on full display. And Uncle Phil (Adrian Holmes) has an old suitor show up while Aunt Viv (Cassandra Freeman) is battling for her voice and freedom. Of course, Will (Jabari Banks), the fulcrum of the show, is dealing with trying to be West Philly Will in Bel-Air. His struggles and who he brings into his orbit to keep him grounded are the show’s main centering force. But it’s Carlton’s human struggles with identity, pressure and anxiety that make for the most interesting storyline.
I’m here for it, and I cannot wait to see what happens with Carlton’s character in the next season; who knows where his senior year will take him. If the first two seasons are any indication, we’re in for an interesting ride into what life is like for a young, Black, rich kid trying to discern who that makes him in America.
Panama Jackson is a columnist at theGrio. He writes very Black things and drinks very brown liquors, and is pretty fly for a light guy. His biggest accomplishment to date coincides with his Blackest accomplishment to date in that he received a phone call from Oprah Winfrey after she read one of his pieces (biggest), but he didn’t answer the phone because the caller ID said: “Unknown” (Blackest).
Make sure you check out the Dear Culture podcast every Thursday on theGrio’s Black Podcast Network, where I’ll be hosting some of the Blackest conversations known to humankind. You might not leave the convo with an afro, but you’ll definitely be looking for your Afro Sheen! Listen to Dear Culture on TheGrio’s app; download it here.