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Summer of ‘88: Coming to America

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Summer of ‘88: <em>Coming to America</em>

One of my most memorable and, in a way, profound early movie-watching experiences happened the first time I saw Eddie Murphy in Coming to America. By that point, the film was almost a decade old (I wasn’t even born when it opened in June 1988), part of the Golden Age of Murphy’s Hollywood career that included works such as 48 Hrs., Trading Places, and Beverly Hills Cop. Directed by John Landis and based on a story conceived by Murphy himself, it had a simple but brilliantly executed plot: Pampered African prince, Akeem, travels to Queens, New York, where he disguises his royal identity in order to find a bride who will, as he explains, “stimulate my mind, as well as my loins.”

Up until this point in the ’80s, Murphy’s on-screen roles were largely street-wise cops or grifters prone to witty one-liners, often pairing him with uptight Caucasian straight-men. Here, he was entering entirely new territory. Instead of a cop or a con man he was prince; he was the straight man, and for the first time, he was also the romantic lead. The role marked another important turning point in Murphy’s genesis as a comedic actor: It was the first time that he really began to experiment with makeup and prosthetics in the creation of multiple personae on screen. Randy Watson, lead singer of Sexual Chocolate, and Saul and Clarence, barbershop regulars, were all the progenitors of the kinds of characters we would come to know, for better or worse, in comedies including the successful remake of The Nutty Professor and the less warmly received Bowfinger and Norbit.

Revisiting Coming to America as a critic, much of the humor that helped to make it the third highest-grossing movie at the U.S. box office in ’88 still holds up. From Soul Glo to “Sexual Chocolate!” to McDowell’s, Murphy and his team managed to strike a balance of relatively edgy humor and charming, if at times slightly formulaic, romance. Revisiting it as a Ghanaian, that satisfaction of seeing the on-screen portrayals of Africans who weren’t corrupt, impoverished, or dying of AIDS remains. Of course, Prince Akeem’s Zamunda, with its palm trees and turreted castles and ridiculous excess, is an outlandish fiction, but for an African, this deliberately positive vision still feels like a rebuke to so many negative cinematic representations of the African continent.

It’s hard to tell if a comedy like Coming to America could be made today. A few years ago, there was talk of a remake starring Martin Lawrence as a Queens native who finds out he’s heir to an African throne. Thankfully, the project seems to have fizzled. What made Coming to America distinct was the way it chose to use and subvert stereotypes, depicting Zamunda as a luxurious paradise and choosing Queens in mid December, rather than somewhere like Los Angeles, as its polar opposite. The movie confronted perceptions of where wealth and education are supposed to reside. And with Darryl (Eriq La Salle), Akeem’s rival for love-interest Lisa (Shari Headley), the movie challenged and poked fun at Western ignorance, demonstrated in lines like “What kind of games do ya’ll play in Africa? Chase the monkey?”

There’s a moment during one of the first barbershop scenes where the regulars get into an argument about Muhammad Ali changing his name to Cassius Clay. Murphy, as Saul, insists that, “A man has the right to change his name to whatever he wants to change it to!” It may be a huge stretch to say it, but the sentiment of that line, beneath the humor of the scene, pretty much encompasses the larger appeal of the movie for me. It’s a story about an African shirking the constraints of the identity thrust upon him, creating his own identity, and of course getting the girl.