A lot has happened in the 33 years since Coming to America hit theaters in 1988, just a few weeks before NWA’s single “Straight Outta Compton” became a phenomenon.
Eddie Murphy is no longer the box office star that he was, and the America of today has a different kind of racial awareness than America in 1988.
Murphy was then one of the biggest movie stars in America, with a string of hits under his belt, including the Trading Places and the Beverly Hills Cop movies, and two wildly influential comedy specials, Delirious and Raw. And while the mostly white critical establishment seemed baffled by Coming to America, a slapstick film about an African prince, audiences absolutely loved it. It made $21 million in its opening weekend, on its $28 million budget. That box office take mushroomed to $300 million worldwide before it closed nearly six months later.
Watching Coming to America now, it’s not hard to see why it was a hit. It’s a weird snort-laugher of a comedy, a movie that begs to be watched in an audience where the guffaws coming from the row behind you just make you laugh harder. Murphy played Prince Akeem of Zamunda, a wealthy and fabulous fictional African country ruled by his father, King Jaffe Joffer (James Earl Jones). As Zamundan royalty, Akeem’s marriage has been planned since his birth; he’s betrothed to the obsequious daughter of a neighboring ruler. But Akeem wants something different. So he and his best buddy, Semmi (Arsenio Hall), take off for America so Akeem can “sow his royal oats” and, he hopes, find a wife with whom he shares a true connection.
Where to find a queen in New York City but in, well, Queens? Akeem meets the love of his life, Lisa (Shari Headley), gets a job pushing a mop in a fast food restaurant, and finds out about the institution of the Black barbershop. And he learns that Black greatness is as alive and well in America as in Zamunda. The movie is loaded with terrific Black actors, including John Amos, Allison Dean, and bit parts for everyone from Frankie Faison to not-yet-famous Samuel L. Jackson and Cuba Gooding Jr.
Coming to America was radical just because it existed — a film with almost no speaking parts for white actors that was still a massive hit, not just in the US but around the world. If Hollywood kept beating the “Black films don’t travel” mythical drum for decades longer for some reason (we know the reason), it wasn’t Coming to America’s fault.
Given its rapturous reception and decades-long iconic status, a sequel has long been in the works. Due in theaters in late 2020, it was pandemic-delayed into 2021 with a streaming release instead.
And in some ways that feels right. Coming 2 America is impossible to dislike. It’s cleaner than the original, perhaps in keeping with Murphy’s current life as a family man, a father of 10 and grandfather now, too, who has only recently re-entered life in the public eye. (His comeback was the considerably bawdier 2019 Netflix comedy Dolemite Is My Name; Craig Brewer, who directed that one, directs Coming 2 America, too.) The nudity is gone, even if the lewd jokes are still there — Leslie Jones is in this movie, after all — and the entire vibe is a little more family-friendly, less transgressive, more like a standard-issue studio comedy of the 21st century.
It is just as sweet-natured as the older film, too. Akeem’s starry-eyed naivete went a long way toward making the premise of the original film work, rather than feel kind of gross. That gets doubled-back and reversed for Coming 2 America, in which only a very tiny bit of time is actually spent in America. Instead, in this installment, King Jaffe is nearing the end of his life. Akeem, Lisa, and their three daughters have been living a happy life in Zamunda. But despite the fact that the girls are all badass warrior princesses, the eldest, Meeka (the great Kiki Layne), cannot inherit her father’s kingdom. Zamunda’s backward laws still decree that only a male can rule. And so either Meeka needs to marry, or Akeem needs to produce a male heir, stat. (Meeka is Akeem backward, which is a fun touch.)
This is, startlingly enough, quickly accomplished. Back in their Queens days, Semmi engineered a way to have Akeem unknowingly (on drugs) impregnate a woman, an event he has no memory of doing. (Yikes?) So in Queens awaits the future ruler of Zamunda, Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler), who lives with his wryly named mother, Mary (Jones, having a ton of fun). Akeem and Semmi take off to collect him and bring him back to Zamunda.
Despite a premise vaguely reminiscent of The Princess Diaries, Coming 2 America is really just a nostalgia-fest, less of a sequel than a remix. There’s a mild lesson buried in here about how our young passions and ambitions and courage can calcify into passive, placid complacency over time. And there is of course the standard, straight-faced exhortation to be true to yourself, follow your heart, be your own person — all of that Hollywood stuff.
Coming 2 America is really just a movie about how fun and great Coming to America was. It gives us another way to dance to the prior movie’s beat. It’s full of cameos from the older film, even improbable ones (those old guys in the barbershop would have definitely kicked the bucket by now). It chuckles about how different Queens is now; it calls in everyone from Wesley Snipes to Trevor Noah, Morgan Freeman, and Tracy Morgan for secondary roles and bit parts; it’s got some great musical scenes from performers I won’t reveal so as not to ruin the fun. Most everything in the film is a reference to something from its predecessor, but that’s kind of the idea: reminiscing about the good old days, not wholly unlike what those barbershop guys love to do all day.
I strongly suspect it’s partly my pandemic exhaustion talking, but while I didn’t have nearly as much fun watching Coming 2 America as I did the original, I still had fun. Watching the film feels just a little like going to a themed anniversary celebration, or getting to attend the premiere party after the film, something nobody has gotten to do for a while. There’s nothing subversive or radical about the film itself; it’s far less unusual to find a Black-led film atop the box office lists these days (when there are box offices, anyhow). And in its insistence on the general goodness of its characters and people’s ability to change their old ideas into new ones, it keeps that genial, winking attitude that the first film embodied. Times change, and ideas change, and the discourse changes, but some things don’t have to change all that much to still be fun.
Coming 2 America is streaming on Amazon Prime.