When Art Imitates Life

Actor Jimmy Akingbola charts his journey from tough beginnings to starring in Bel Air and making his new documentary Handle with Care.

Everyone has a story to tell. Although for some of us, it’s the hardest thing to do.

My story starts with my parents, Akin and Eunice, leaving Nigeria for the U.K. in the ’70s. They ended up divorcing and my dad took in my brothers, Sola and Segun, and my sister, Morounke, but not me. My dad didn’t accept me or see me as his son. My mother, who was suffering from schizophrenia, left me at a social security office after arguing about a money issue.

From there, I was put in a children’s home in East London. When she was well, I was visited regularly by my mother. The social services’ plan was that my mum would get better and I would live with her again. Unfortunately, she never did get better.

This led to me being fostered eventually by the people I know now as my parents, Gloria and Dennis. They were amazing. They already had two boys, Dean and Adam, and a girl named Denise. They were white and didn’t set out to foster a Black kid, but they fell in love with one. I mean, can you blame them? Have you seen my baby photos?!

Jimmy Akingbola at 2, 3 and 7 years old, respectively. (Photos courtesy Jimmy Akingbola.)

I had so much love given to me by my foster family, my biological siblings and my mother, Eunice. So, for me this is not a white savior story, it’s a celebratory story of a successful blended family, rooted in love.

Growing up, I remember how important TV and film were to my foster family. Being the youngest, I’d always sneak downstairs and watch films my older brothers Dean and Adam had rented.

Because of the movies they watched (Beverly Hills Cop, Training Day, Men in Black), I fell in love with the actors that looked like me, such as Denzel Washington, Eddie Murphy and Will Smith. My foster family would now be called “woke,” but back then to me they were just my family.

I remember me and my foster family all sitting around the dinner table on Tuesdays at 6 p.m. watching The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. We would never miss an episode and would always sing the opening theme tune. I loved how we would laugh together as a family.

I remember watching Fresh Prince and feeling like I was Will Smith. I think I connected with the fish-out-of-water experience Will was going through. The Banks family loved him and was there for him, which mirrored exactly what I was experiencing. While his differences were based on class, mine were clearly based on race.

I remember the “Papa’s Got a Brand New Excuse” episode of Fresh Prince, when Will’s dad arrives in Bel Air and basically abandons him again. I will never forget how emotional that scene was and how it triggered me.

When I saw Will crying in Uncle Phil’s arms asking, “How come he don’t want me, man?!”, I saw myself also crying, wondering why my dad didn’t want me either.

Jimmy Akingbola with Fresh Prince of Bel-Air stars Joseph Marcell and Will Smith. (Photos courtesy TriForce Productions.)

Will’s performances throughout the ’90s inspired me and are part of the reason I’m an actor today.

During my drama school training, I became a nerd about Black actors. I studied and gravitated toward amazing performers like Giancarlo Esposito, Samuel L. Jackson, Wesley Snipes, Don Cheadle and Forest Whittaker.

I did this because it was obvious to me that there was a lack of representation when it came to Black actors and roles, in the U.K. especially, and I came to the realization that all of my acting idols were American.

And then I found the cable network that changed my life forever: HBO. The sound of the TV static noise followed by the HBO logo filled me with excitement and anticipation of what was to come.

The first HBO show I fell in love with was Oz. I was particularly drawn to the character of Adebisi, played by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, a fellow Nigerian. And when I found out that he and Eamonn Walker were both British actors, it gave me hope to see what was possible for this East London-born fostered Black kid of African descent.

Then, of course, I saw Idris Elba doing his thing in The Wire … yes, another HBO show.

It doesn’t stop there. Seeing Lennie James in The Walking Dead also inspired me to go full throttle toward my dream of becoming a successful working international actor in both the U.K. and the U.S.

So, 20 years later, here I am, with a dream fulfilled as an international actor with shows on both the BBC and NBC.

Jimmy Akingbola (right) on set with his Bel-Air castmates. (Photo courtesy Jimmy Akingbola.)

As I’m writing this, there’s currently a building named after me in the same youth centre where I spent my formative years, which caters to underprivileged kids. I can’t help but wonder if there’s a little Black boy or girl who sees my name on the side of the building and in the credits of Bel-Air, and dreams of a future bigger than they could have ever imagined, just like I did with the actors who came before me.

My recent blessings have come after a devastating few years. During the pandemic, I went through multiple cycles of grief because half of my family passed away. It was then that I decided to make the documentary about my life, Handle with Care.

My doc was a love letter to both of my families. I wanted to tell a story that wasn’t mining Black trauma, but was celebratory and inspiring. Why? Because we are more than trauma. And if I’m honest, I feel like we never really see positive or inspiring foster or adoption stories centered around little Black boys.

Society’s perception of those in care is that they face the inevitable fate of incarceration, drug abuse or teenage pregnancy. I don’t fit into any of these categories. That is not to say the stats aren’t accurate – they just don’t tell the full story.

I wanted Handle with Care to show young people in care that their beginning in life doesn’t need to dictate their future. I wanted to inspire more people and communities to adopt and foster. There are so many kids out there in need of love and a family. I should know: I was one of them.

Jimmy Akingbola (center) with his family at the premiere of Handle with Care. (Photo by José Farinha, courtesy Jimmy Akingbola.)

During my research for Handle with Care, imagine my surprise when I discovered that The Fresh Prince of Bel Air was based on the life of Bennie Medina, a Black man adopted by a white family.

I also discovered that some of my early U.K. acting heroes, like Lennie James and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, had also come out of the U.K. care system.

Peacock recently acquired Handle with Care, and the alignment between the original concept and Geoffrey’s current storyline can only be seen as God’s business. (You’ll have to tune in to see what I mean. No spoilers here.)

I’m truly grateful for the positive response to my documentary. It amazes me that I’m now in conversations about creating a U.S. version. My goal in creating Handle with Care was always for it to be made in love and care (pun intended), and for it to help, heal and inspire those who saw themselves in and through the film.

In Nigeria, it’s said that a child’s name points them to their path and purpose. My Yoruba names are Bamidele and Olatokunbo, which mean “return home with me” and “bring wealth from abroad.” I suppose I’m doing just that. I brought viewers home into my most vulnerable moments in Handle with Care and I’m able to return back to the U.K. and Nigeria with wealth from abroad due to the success of Bel-Air. If that isn’t life imitating art, I don’t know what is.

Featured image of Jimmy Akingbola courtesy TriForce Productions.

Jimmy Akingbola currently stars as the Geoffrey in Season 2 of Bel-Air, the dramatic re-imagining of the ’90s sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. His documentary Handle With Care, a deeply personal story which traces his own journey with adoption and uncovers the truth about growing up in the care system in England, is now streaming on Peacock. Jimmy’s other recent credits range include the Emmy-nominated Most Dangerous Game, the Emmy-winning Ted Lasso for Apple TV+ and the CW’s Arrow, in which he played arch-villain Baron Reiter. His previous television includes BAFTA-winning comedy REV., which also starred Olivia Colman and Tom Hollander, and Cheat. (Photo by TriForce Productions.)