At The Movies: Coming to America (1988)


Coming to America
1988 • 117 minutes • Paramount Pictures
Despite being an eighties freak, Coming to America long escaped my interest. Why? Well, because it’s not really the eighties, is it? Coming to America lacks what I consider the classic eighties look. What we so often break down into discreet decades are really half-decades. Armpit decades, if you will, and I say that knowing full well that you will not. This is the late eighties/early nineties situation, full of oversized sweaters, dull color palettes, and the ugliest interior design. This is is the calm before the art of tailoring was briefly lost for a decade. This is the cultural context that birthed Licence to Kill.
I’ve also never been a particular fan of Eddie Murphy. As kid, my only exposure to Eddie Murphy was limited to broad, child-friendly comedy–and, of course, Shrek. It blew my mind to discover, as an older teen, that Eddie Murphy had once been cool. (It was kind of like discovering that your parents were once cool. It seems impossible, but the photo evidence that they once had hair as cool as yours is undeniable.) And not only cool, but one of the most popular comedians in America. But Delirious, which features an extended homophobic joke, obviously did not endear him to me.
Nonetheless, a mention in a recent(-ish. Y’all, I’m a busy lady) episode of the The Flop House convinced me to give it a shot. In an episode on The Golden Child, Elliott Kalan mentioned that he preferred Eddie Murphy in Coming to America, where he plays an idealistic romantic, rather than a smooth talker.

Said idealistic romantic is Prince Akeem of Zamunda. Rich beyond imagining, Akeem is nonetheless frustrated with his coddled lifestyle and put off by the fact that women tend to see his status first, he decides to take matters into his own hands. Escaping his parents (who believe he’s taking a forty day trip to “sow his royal oats” before his arranged marriage), he travels to America with his best friend Semmi to experience life as a poor man and to find a woman who appreciates him for himself.
Coming to America turned out to be a kind of middling romantic comedy. It’s laugh out loud funny if you think lines like “the royal penis is clean, your highness” are laugh out loud funny, which I don’t. Instead, I was more fascinated by its context, both culturally and in terms of Eddie Murphy’s career. I’ve already talked about the ugly interior design, but it truly bears repeating. It’s not the production designer’s fault–that’s what was en vogue at the time–but I occasionally feared I would go mad.
But it’s also the rare mainstream comedy that boasts a nearly all-black cast. In a time when Hollywood frets over and whitewashes its films to an absurd degree (Ghost in the Shell? Really?), it’s nice to remember a time where that was perfectly feasible. Of course, that’s only because of Murphy’s star power, and comedies, with their lower budgets, can have an easier time of it.
It also straddles both halves of Eddie Murphy’s career. The film utilizes the suave, cool charm of the younger Murphy to present Akeem as a romantic lead and the mugging of the elder Murphy to present Akeem as a goofball, which don’t always mesh together into a coherent character. Interesting, Coming to America is the first Eddie Murphy film to feature Murphy (and Arsenio Hall) playing different characters with the help of prosthetics, starting Murphy down a path that ends, tragically, in Norbit.
Coming to America is also surprisingly sensitive to the plight of foreigners living in the United States, which is honestly my favorite thing about it. (Quelle surprise.) The film isn’t exactly, uh, nuanced in its depiction of Zamunda, which feels like a catchall of random African cultures than anything else, but we luckily don’t spend too much time there. Throughout his trip, Akeem suffers xenophobic microaggressions from all quarters. His new landlord shrugs at the less than sanitary apartment he rents Akeem and Semmi, figuring that “you boys from Africa” will be fine with it. His new boss rewards him for saving the restaurant from a gun-wielding Samuel L. Jackson by inviting him to his home–to be the bartender for a private party. And Darryl, his rival for the affections of kind Lisa, spends a basketball game making cracks about how all Africans fight off tigers with sticks. (Akeem primly informs him that Zamundans play football. Real football.)
I watched this film on Netflix.

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