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Bel-Air - A fan made film (2019)


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I was promised a part in the 'Fresh Prince of Bel-Air' remake — instead I left LA jobless and in debt

Mar 2, 2023, 5:05 AM
Rufus Berns with DJ Jazzy Jeff
Rufus Burns (left) met DJ Jazzy Jeff at a Kansas City festival in 2019 after the viral "Bel-Air" short film dropped. Jeff played Jazz in "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" sitcom, and Burns played Jazz in the short.  Courtesy of Rufus Burns
  • Rufus Burns played the role of Jazz in the viral short film 'Bel-Air,' based on the sitcom, 'The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.'
  • When the television version of the short film was picked up by NBC, Burns believed he'd reprise the role.
  • Burns moved to LA on his own dime and contributed creatively to the show, but was never cast.
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This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Rufus Burns, a producer who works in Kansas City. Insider has verified Burns' creative involvement in the "Bel-Air" reboot with email correspondence, text messages, and other supporting documentation. His words have been edited for length and clarity.

I moved to Kansas City to get my master of fine arts in acting and directing. I'm a classically trained artist. I've spent most of my time since 2012 in Kansas City, working, living, and creating art there. 

Morgan Cooper — who would eventually become a co-creator, director, and executive producer on "Bel-Air" — and I met in 2018, on a film project. I remember really appreciating our partnership when we first met. We just hit it off, talking about characters and filmmaking in general, and how it can help Black people. 

We agreed early on that our motto working together would be that our art isn't what we make, it's who we are — because we can make beautiful things, but if it's destroying our community, it's not worth it. It seemed like a great creative match and friendship at the time. 

In 2018, the idea for a dramatic version of 'The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air' came up

We were working on some other projects together and Cooper called me up and said he had an idea for a spec he wanted to shoot. He was like, "I want to do 'The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air' but as a serious drama." And I was like, "Yeah, man, absolutely. I love that." I thought it was the most brilliant idea in the world. He said he wanted me to play Jazz in it (Will's best friend character in the sitcom), which I was excited about. 

Rufus Burns acting in 'Bel-Air' short film
Rufus Burns played Jazz in the viral "Bel-Air" short film.  Morgan Cooper/Vimeo

We shot what would become the viral short that inspired the 'Bel-Air' reboot in 2018, and I played Jazz. It was a great experience. Six or seven months went by, and Cooper was still working on post-production and stuff for it. We continued to shoot other stuff together — two other films since then. Looking back, I realize that what I really missed out on was the business part of show business. I just wanted to talk shop and pitch ideas — but then he would go and write the ideas down and come back with scripts. I thought it was cool — I liked seeing my ideas come to life. 

Cooper called me when he went to go meet Will Smith and pitch the show. He showed me the pitch deck, and my character, Jazz, was a big part of it. I had shared part of my own personal story with him to add to the character — I've been blind in my left eye since birth, and we talked about adding that to Jazz's story. He wears sunglasses all the time because it's an insecurity of his. He's committed to overcoming this setback by giving his heart and soul to music and art. That's all my personal experience. 

When the show was picked up, I had chills — it was incredible to see the impact we had, making this short. Cooper sent me messages like, "Hey man, you're gonna be Jazz in the television version — get ready for your life to change."

When I heard him say that, especially with him being attached as the executive producer and co-creator on "Bel-Air," I figured it was a done deal. I proceeded to mold my life around that opportunity. 

We moved out to LA to start pre-production on 'Bel-Air,' and I worked for free

As we started to get closer to pre-production for "Bel-Air," Cooper said I should move out to LA. I thought it made perfect sense — we should be there for when things start to ramp up. I'm playing one of the lead roles after all, right? I should go research my character and learn the area he's from.

Cooper had me drive his car, with all of his stuff, out to LA in October of 2020. I could feel that I was putting myself in a vulnerable position, but it felt like the opportunity of a lifetime. You throw all these cautions to the wind, dive in, and give yourself over to it because you're thinking it has to pay off. 

I was in the writers room Zoom call when they kicked off pre-production for "Bel-Air." I'd sit in the virtual writers room meetings and take notes, do research, and pitch storylines. Cooper would send me scripts that NBC would send him, and have me read them and give my feedback — then I would sit in the meetings and hear him pitch my feedback verbatim to NBC.

I didn't see a problem with it at that time. I was just mesmerized, like "Wow, I'm part of something historic," when what I should've been thinking was, "Hey, I should be getting paid for this." But Cooper would say stuff like, "I'm gonna shoot you some bread for this," or "I'll see about getting you paid." It was never, "I'm gonna put you on the show as an employee," though. After a couple of months of me working like this, the show eventually hired a writer's assistant to do what I was doing — and Cooper never followed up about payment or anything.

I'm a producer and actor with common sense, but when you have someone in your ear promising you certain things, it's really hard to stop and be like, "Hey, I'm not getting paid for months and months of work and I'm starting to struggle financially." It was a weird balance because it's like, you're my homie, but I'm not eating, and you're eating off all this. 

During pre-production, we started another project together that feels like it was a distraction from 'Bel-Air,' looking back on it now

Cooper and I continued to work on other projects together. He came to me with another idea for a short film that I would star in, which was supposed to take a week to shoot but ultimately turned into three months. Some of it was written and some of it was improvised, so it was a heavy lift that felt like it would go on and on forever, shooting this thing. 

He sent me $1,000 at the start of the film project we were doing and was like, "Hey man, here's a little bit for the film." I was really struggling at this point because LA is expensive, and I have no job because I'm working with him all the time — so $1,000 wasn't going to help me much. I'm thinking we're biding time until 'Bel-Air' is ready to shoot, so I'm down to keep moving forward with nothing else steady to live on.

We got some of the same team together from the viral "Bel-Air" short, and we all worked on this feature film together while pre-production continued on the TV show. We'd all been offered the opportunity to be part of "Bel-Air" in some form or another — to be seen by casting for a role, or to apply for crew work — so I wasn't the only one fueled by that promise.

Months later, in July of 2021, Cooper brings us together and says he's canceling the feature film. His day job ("Bel-Air") was taking up too much of his time and he wouldn't be able to finish the film. So basically, we did all that (unpaid) work for nothing. A producer from the "Bel-Air" short who had been financing the film was offered reimbursement. I wasn't. I'd paid over $12,000 on a months-long Airbnb stay. 

As that's happening, I see Cooper's posted the production schedule for "Bel-Air'' — and I see it starts shooting in a couple of weeks. I never got to read for or be cast as Jazz, which I was fully expecting was going to happen, so I was wondering how it's possible the cast isn't set when shooting's about to start. That's when I heard whispers from other people involved that "Bel-Air" had already been cast.

I'd been part of this project in one way or another for three years — so not getting any word from Cooper about what was going on felt like a real betrayal. We haven't talked since then. A couple of weeks later, the official cast list was released. 

Jordan L. Jones at the NeueHouse Hollywood
Jordan L. Jones was cast to play Jazz in the "Bel-Air" series.  Peacock/Contributor/Getty Images

I was crushed. We were supposed to be boys

I felt like that feature film was a distraction to keep me from asking questions and finding out that I wasn't going to be part of the show in any way. I had moved all of Cooper's stuff from Kansas City out to LA, I'd been paying LA rent with no job and living off of nothing but a dream and a prayer. 

At the same time, I had bills that had accrued during that time. I moved out of LA the first week of August — I just couldn't afford to continue living there. Not only that, I was devastated; I just couldn't be in the area.

Cooper did eventually reach out in December of 2021, offering to mend the relationship. It was too little, too late for me. After six months of not speaking, I realized that my friendship was profitable to him — and without him acknowledging what had happened, there was nothing to fix anymore. 

I have advice for other artists

Things looked up for me pretty quickly after returning to Kansas City. I got a full-time gig producing and I've been loving it ever since. I hire actors now, and I see how these artists are feeding themselves on their day rates — so to skip out on somebody's day rate is unimaginable to me, as I look back on the experience I had.

I thought about swallowing my story and just taking the L — I learned a lesson, and I'm going to choose to move differently from now on — but I wanted to share this story so other artists can learn this: Somebody's promise isn't going to feed you. If they love you, they'll put it in writing. 

I also want artists to know that your personal story is important. Don't be so quick to give that up to a director or another producer who can then go make millions of dollars off of it. 

Editor's note: Insider reached out to both Morgan Cooper and NBC, which owns Peacock, for comment. NBC declined to comment. Cooper and his representatives did not respond to repeated messages.

Were you involved in the "Bel-Air" short film? Do you work in Hollywood and have a story to share? Email Eboni Boykin-Patterson at eboykinpatterson@insider.com.

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