Coming To America is one of the most underrated yet best Eddie Murphy movies, second only to the timeless classic Trading Places. The ’80s were a great time for genuine laugh-out-loud comedy, it was also a time when Saturday Night Live graduates were actually talented and made genuinely funny films, and this is an example of both. The plot of Coming To America centres around the crown prince Akeem of fictional Zamunda who on his 21st birthday is set to have an arranged marriage with someone called Imani Izzi (played by Vanessa Bell). Akeem (played by Eddie Murphy) doesn’t want to tie the knot with someone he doesn’t have a connection with, so he plans to travel to the United States with his best friend Semmi (played by Arsenio Hall) to search for his real princess. Akeem’s father King Jaffe Joffer (played by James Earl Jones) thinks his son is going to the States to “sew his royal oats” and after his 40 day jaunt, he plans to marry him to Imani. Unbeknownst to the King however, Prince Akeem wants to find someone he truly loves, and so he travels to Queens to find his… Queen.
Coming To America seems to be based entirely on a joke about “Queens” but thankfully, this film doesn’t wear itself out after that initial gag. The main reason why this movie was a success and is looked upon with fondness to this day, is undoubtedly Akeem; this sheltered, naïve and sometimes childish character makes for great fish out of water comedy. Coming from an idyllic (yet royal) black province before Wakanda was ever translated to film, Zamunda is the polar opposite of New York and for someone who’s so pampered that he can’t brush his own teeth or tie his own shoelaces, coming face-to-face with tenements, litter, and manual labour makes for some hilarious moments (“when you think of garbage, think of Akeem!”).
From the classic opening in which we the audience fly from the Paramount logo into and over Zamunda (which correct me if I’m wrong was the first time a movie messed with or incorporated the studio logo with the film) this movie is chock-full with classic scene and quotable lines. “The royal penis is clean your highness” is a line which if quoted, everyone will know where it originates. From Oha’s sudden burst into song (“She’s Your Queen To Be”) going from falsetto to fore-lawn in a split-second, every scene in the My-T-Sharp barbershop, the dating/nightclub scene with various “unsuitable” women, almost every scene is recognisable and memorable.
You also know something is a classic when it becomes part of popular culture, and this movie went on to influence many ’90’s creations. “Prince Akeem” was most likely the inspiration to RZA’s original moniker “Prince Rakeem”, the line “Your rent’s due motherfucker!” was sampled in Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s “Mr. Bill Collector”, and most famously, the Paula Abdul-choreographed ceremonial dance (when Imani is presented to Akeem) along with most of the opening scenes were referenced in Busta Rhymes’ video for “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See”…
Very much like Trading Places borrowing the central idea from The Prince And The Pauper and making it a comedy, the premise of Up The Junction (a rich person pretending to be poor and finding romance) is done much better with Coming To America. And speaking of Trading Places, the Duke brothers (played by Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy) make a cameo appearance and leave the possibility of a better ending for them and a potential sequel (steady Amazon Video, it’s too late).
Whilst on the topic of story, I have to acknowledge the sexism and racism. The story of Coming To America is by Eddie Murphy but the screenplay is penned by David Sheffield and Barry W. Blaustein. Regardless of who came up with what, the concept of a black man going from the “jungle” to the “concrete jungle” is a mildly racist set-up. The plot which also touches on western black racism against African black people, simultaneously upholds the idea that light-skinned black people, more specifically light-skinned women, are more beautiful. There’s also lots of sexism and sexist tropes (the gold-digger character for one) but this is thankfully balanced by the character of Lisa McDowell who isn’t impressed with riches. I suppose you have to give this flick a bit of leeway since it’s the 1980s. “White” films ranging from Sixteen Candles to Revenge Of The Nerds were filled with racism, sexism, and homophobia but they’re all seen as classics by critics, so why not this so-called black movie? One thing’s for certain: whether you were actually there or you’re merely a fan of the decade, seeing a Radio Shack and a Pontiac Firebird will have you ogling over the 1980s setting, especially if you’re watching this in 4K.
In terms of plot, we have lots of silliness here so you can’t read too much into the overall message. One could argue that this is a royalist piece of entertainment and the comedy is there to mislead. Even though the “wipers” seem like an outrageous concept, the “groom of the stool” was an actual job back in the day. We also have the narrative of forced marriage vs. love which mirrors the situation with Prince Charles, Princess Diana, and Camilla Parker-Bowles. I also saw a little irony here and there. When Akeem is chatting with his co-worker, he says Daryl “must work very hard” to which his colleague answers “the prince of Soul Glo work hard?”. The fact that nepotism is rife within not only the royal family but also the business sector, it’s strange that these kinds of lines weren’t directed with a little more tongue-in-cheek kind of vibe. At least the line “there’s a very fine line between love and nausea” (and the funny reaction by the Queen) makes this movie firmly anti-arranged marriage. In some small way, this comedy did have something to convey to its audience.
Coming To America for me, was basically a portfolio to showcase Eddie Murphy’s comedy-character-playing credentials way before The Nutty Professor. In an Alec Guinness Kind Hearts and Coronets kind of way, Murphy along with Hall, played a whole host of characters of varying ages and ethnicities. Thanks to Rick Baker’s outstanding make-up, the barbers and the old Jewish bloke in My-T-Sharp, Sexual Chocolate’s Randy Watson and Reverend Brown are now genre-defining characters that are endlessly referenced. Watson trying to sing badly was another ironic moment since we know Murphy can actually sing and had a semi-successful career with his Rick James and Michael Jackson features…
Aside from Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall, there’s a fantastic cast including the great Madge Sinclair as Queen Aoleon, James Earl Jones as King Jaffe, John Amos as Cleo McDowell, and the brilliant Frankie Faison as the Land or should I say Slumlord. Judging solely by the trailer for the sequel Coming 2 America, at least Shari Headley is reprising her role as Lisa McDowell unlike the new (and younger) princesses in Bill & Ted Face The Music. Whilst on the topic of actors, Samuel L. Jackson plays a bit-part thief to compliment all his stereotypical characters in his filmography, Cuba Gooding Jr. is sat in the barbershop chair, E.R.‘s Eriq La Salle is the arsehole love rival Daryl and Falling Down and Die Hard 2‘s Vondie Curtis-Hall plays fellow Zamunda citizen and vendor at the basketball game.
Directed by John Landis, who is responsible for other classics such as An American Werewolf In London and the aforementioned Trading Places, made non-comedic scenes such as the motorcade look important and impressive and it goes without saying that the comedy is shot and cut brilliantly. For example when Akeem says “He has accepted us as equals” we abruptly (and humourously) cut to he and Semmi working at Mr. McDowell’s house, and when the Soul Glo dynasty get up from the sofa, there’s a shot of three stains on the fabric mocking Jheri curls more than Tim Dog.
With the beautifully calming sounds of flutes during the bathing scene to the Soul Glo jingle, Nile Rodgers fantastic soundtrack including the title song, also adds to the film’s classic status. I don’t know if Rogers was responsible for the “She’s Your Queen To Be” lyrics but lines like “completely free from infection” were hilarious.
Breaking the fourth wall became Murphy’s trademark after Trading Places and Eddie does it in this movie too. Whilst on the subject, I have to say that Eddie Murphy/John Landis’ Trading Places is a perfect 10/10 but their follow-up Coming To America doesn’t have the same kind of flow and pace to warrant that kind of score. That being said, this is a film you can watch over and over again and never be bored. Along with The Golden Child, watching Coming To America as a kid made me want to do back-flips and kick someone’s butt with a staff and as an adult I find humour in places I didn’t catch when I was young. For instance, calling Akeem “Kunta” was teetering on meta since Roots’ Kunta himself (at least the older version) was starring in this film (John Amos).
In true 1980’s form, the closing credits feature scenes from the film edited together with the cast member’s name a la Trading Places, Revenge Of The Nerds, et al. Now that it’s been more than three decades since it was first released, this film therefore, also acts as a vehicle for nostalgia. Watching it today reminds me of a pre-Norbit and Meet Dave Eddie Murphy at the height of his comedy career; a time when everyone thought he could do no wrong.
With so many gorgeous women, not only in Zamunda but also in Queens, surely Akeem would be spoiled for choice? From the beautiful rose-bearers played by Garcelle Beauvais and Stephanie Simon by his side, why did this Prince even have to go to Queens in the first place? And once he’s in N.Y., just ask the woman in the black and white swimsuit at the Miss Black Awareness pageant out or failing that, the “I’m into the group thing” lass is surely a keeper 😆. But jokes aside, the delightful Shari Headley playing Lisa McDowell is completely charming and makes the romance of the film believable. Alongside movies like Groundhog Day, this was a Rom-Com that wasn’t saccharine-filled and mushy. Let’s hope the sequel isn’t yet another let-down courtesy of Hollywood who’ve been running out of ideas of late.