Coming to America: A Look Back at a Timeless, Endearing Classic

There are movies that you watch one time and that’s enough for a lifetime, and there are movies that you revisit time and time again, and never tire of, like old friends. For most of my life, I’ve had a voracious appetite for cinema (one that some might find unhealthy) and in that time I’ve revisited lots of my favorites lots of times, but there’s no movie I’ve made better friends with than the 1988 comedy classic Coming to America. The modern fairytale starring Eddie Murphy (times 4), Arsenio Hall (times 4), James Earl Jones, Madge Sinclair, Shari Headley, John Amos, and so many more, has universal appeal, and it’s left a lasting impression on multiple generations. Even now, more than 32 years later, people are excited for the sequel. Coming 2 America hits Amazon March 5th, and it stars much of the beloved original cast, plus a few intriguing additions like Wesley Snipes and Tracy Morgan. In anticipation of our return trip to Zamunda, lets take a look back at the timeless, endearing original.

What do you love about Coming to America? Ask 10 of its fans and you might get 10 different answers. 10 possible responses are: Eddie Murphy, McDowell’s, the hilarious script, Randy Watson, the amazing costumes, Rick Baker’s makeup, Soul Glo, Zamunda, the dance sequence, and the guys in the barbershop. So many elements of CtA endure, and the movie is endlessly quotable. What’s so noticeable all these years later is just how much went into the film; the high level of craft in every regard. It still looks and sounds amazing. The costumes and the sets are incredibly detailed. The humor holds up. While other movies from the same period have aged poorly or have distasteful moments, CtA still feels pure. It’s now widely-regarded as Eddie Murphy’s best film, yet it still feels slightly underrated in the mainstream, but that’s unimportant because CtA‘s reigned for years as the people’s champ. From the hood to the suburbs and into foreign lands, this movie’s had an impact. I’ve never bonded with so many people over a film that didn’t include a light saber and I’ve never run into a person who outright disliked it. Many people revere it and the movie has a strong cult following.

I was born in ’81 and was only 6 years old when CtA hit theaters to a tune $288 million worldwide on a budget of $36 million. First time I saw it was at my friend Brandon’s house in the early 90s. He was a couple of years older than me and his dad had a shelf full of old comedies and hood classics taped on VHS. I bought it soon after and it was the most cherished VHS tape in my young collection (still got it!). I played it for my family and we laughed and quoted Cleo McDowell talking about the differences between his restaurant and McDonald’s. A few years later, my brother suffered a horrific injury playing indoor soccer. He broke his femur and was laid up in the hospital for a month in traction. During that time we watched the same VHS tape over a dozen times and it always made the tough days better. The law of diminishing returns states that it shouldn’t be possible to watch a movie so many times and for it to fully retain its charms and magic, but CtA lives in a realm beyond the laws of nature. I’ve seen it dozens of times if not hundreds, and I know it’s good, yet I’m still taken aback by just how good it is, every time I see it. There’s not many movies I can say that about. The ones I can are all-timers.

Over the years, I’ve met many people with their own CtA stories. My buddy Jacob, a former co-worker at a non-profit ministry who also considers it his favorite movie, said the film was instrumental in helping him learn English when he moved here from South Sudan. Another friend and co-worker, Robyn, started dabbling with painting when we were all quarantined last year and one of the subjects she painted was Eddie Murphy as Prince Akeem. CtA is also her favorite movie. When I discover someone who loves CtA, usually by dropping a quote and them reciprocating, an instant bond is often formed. Kind of like vibing with someone else who loves The Wire or Seinfeld or (insert your favorite similar thing). Oh, you like that? You know what’s up. You’re in the club.

We mustn’t go any further without discussing the amazing cast and their approach to the material. Regardless of how silly things get and despite whatever funny things their characters are doing, saying, or wearing, the ensemble plays it completely straight and serious. When James Earl Jones states, “I tied my own shoes once. It is an overrated experience” it is with a disgust that feels genuine and it’s funny whether its your first time hearing it or your hundred and first. Murphy’s Prince Akeem is kind and good-hearted; regal. He’s slightly naive, but adaptable and fully-capable. Eddie’s expressions and line readings are hilarious and he injects the Prince with a heavy dose of positively contagious charisma. It’s a commendable performance with a lot of heart. The characters he played after being transformed by Rick Baker in lengthy makeup sessions (singer Randy Watson, barber Clarence, and old Jewish man Saul) are now pop culture icons and Baker received an Oscar nom for his efforts. This is a multiple-character performance on par with Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove and it should be regarded as such.

If CtA is the best thing Eddie’s done, the same must be said for Arsenio. His Semmi is a worthy companion; more realistic, materialistic, and less-idealistic than the Prince, and the two complement each other well. He also gets in on the makeup fun, playing the often-imitated Reverend Brown, Morris in the barbershop, and a character credited as “Extremely Ugly Girl.” Sidney Poitier was originally considered to play King Jaffe Joffer, and that would’ve been interesting, but I can’t imagine anybody else inhabiting the role as well as James Earl Jones. The way he says his lines with such gusto, the way his eyes light up when he talks about his bathers, his general presence as a formidable King, all exceptional. Equally impressive is Madge Sinclair as graceful and wise Queen Aoleon, the true power behind the throne (“Put a sock in it Jaffe, the boy is in love.”) Ms. Sinclair passed away in 1995 and her presence will be missed in the sequel. She and Jones went on to play a royal couple in another beloved film, Disney’s The Lion King (1994). He provided the voice of Mufasa and she played Sarabi, the Queen of Pride Rock.

The movie’s loaded with memorable supporting characters. John Amos’ Cleo McDowell and Allison Dean’s Patrice McDowell are personal favorites. Paul Bates (Oha), Frankie Faison (the landlord), and Eriq LaSalle  (superjerk Darryl) also shine. A young Samuel L. Jackson spouts three F-bombs in a little over a minute of screen time, Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche cameo as Randolph and Mortimer from Trading Places (“Let’s have lunch!”), and Louie Anderson gets a great line about his aspirations to become Assistant Manager. There’s only a few white characters and they’re all cameos or minor roles. This was unprecedented at the time and it’s still rare on a production of this stature. And the thing is, it wasn’t a big deal. CtA wasn’t labeled as a “black movie” or anything, like it might be today. Paramount didn’t use it as an opportunity to pat themselves on the back and promote how inclusive they are. It was just the latest Eddie Murphy comedy and because of how beloved he was, from his previous movies and his work on SNL, they were able to cast the actors they wanted; the right people for the movie they wanted to make.

While the final product is seamless, it wasn’t all smooth-sailing behind the scenes. Eddie Murphy and director John Landis butted heads on set.  They had previously worked together with great results on another comedy classic, the 1983 gem, Trading Places. Ironically, in the years between movies, Eddie and John kind of traded places. On Trading Places, Eddie was younger and eager to please. He was a lighter presence on set. By the time they were filming CtA he was the man, the biggest comedy star in the world, with the entourage (and by John’s account, the ego) to prove it. Eddie felt he had paid his dues and he didn’t appreciate Landis still treating him like a kid, especially when Murphy was the one who hired him to direct the movie. Landis’ career was in a tough spot after a few dud movies and an accident on the set of Twilght Zone: The Movie that killed Vic Morrow (Jennifer Jason Leigh’s dad) and 2 child actors, and resulted in a lengthy trial. The reason Murphy urged the studio to hire him is because, out of all the directors he previously worked with, Landis was the most fun on set. Despite their chippy experience on CtA, they both performed admirably at their assigned tasks, they’re both complementary of the end result, and they ended up working together again on Beverly Hills Cop III (1994).

That wasn’t the only drama. There was a lawsuit over who got credit for the story. Eddie Murphy and John Landis said the original story was all Eddie’s. Humorist and writer Art Buchwald said otherwise. He filed a lawsuit against Paramount alleging that they stole his script idea. He had pitched a screen treatment to them for a movie that would star Murphy and had some similar elements to CtA. His contract stated that he would get paid a certain amount if his treatment were made and since he was not paid or given any credit he sued Paramount for breach of contract. It was proven that Murphy and Landis had seen Buchwald’s treatment and there was enough evidence for Paramount to settle with Buchwald and his producing partner for $900,000.

There was also a lot that went right behind the scenes. Paula Abdul was only 17 and still employed as a Lakers Girl when she was hired to create the technically impressive (and comical) dance sequence that punctuates the Zamunda segment. She absolutely nailed it. John Landis’ wife Deborah Nadoolman was tasked with the costumes. She created over 500 of them for the film, some of which have become iconic, such as King Jaffe Joffer’s lion (“What is that? Velvet?”) and the Scottish-influenced McDowell’s uniforms. The impeccable threads are a sight to behold and Nadoolman was nominated for an Oscar. Her costumes, including Lisa’s long pink dress, combined with Richard Macdonald’s incredible production design, leads to one of the most beautiful-looking wedding scenes in cinema history. (Name one better. I’ll wait.) The music is also an important part of the film’s personality. Niles Rodgers’ original score is versatile, utilizing a variety of influences and styles to enhance the movie. Whether using music to punctuate the comedy in a scene with Darryl and Cleo McDowell’s dog, creating an undeniably sensual theme song for a fictional hair product, or creating immense presence with an African-inspired, drum-heavy number to announce the King’s arrival in New York, Rodgers delivers. His title track (performed by The System) and the soundtrack have an undeniably 80s vibe, but the score is timeless and Niles’ contributions are an essential part of the film’s DNA. All of the contributions I just mentioned are essential to CtA‘s magic.

So what about this sequel? To be honest, I never wanted it to be made. The first one is perfect and why mess with perfection? I feel like it would be incredibly difficult to recapture the magic of the original, especially more than 30 years later.

BUT…

I have certainly warmed up to the idea and I can tell you the reasons why:

Dolemite is My Name was one of my favorite films of 2019. It was a fun return to form for Murphy, and like CtA, the movie has a lot of heart. (Full review here.) It was directed by Craig Brewer, who re-teamed with Murphy to direct Coming 2 America. Hopefully the winning chemistry carries over.

David Sheffield and Barry W. Blaustein. Dave and Barry are two longtime Murphy collaborators who wrote classics like CtA and Boomerang and they’re back in the saddle. They worked with Kenya Barris on C2A.

Ruth E. Carter. I was concerned that if they made a sequel, they wouldn’t put as much thought (or money) into the costumes as they did with the original and that would be unforgivable. I was happy to see Oscar-winning costume designer Ruth E. Carter (Black Panther) attached to C2A. My first glimpse at her modern spin on Zamundan threads was impressive and exciting. They even got her to design a Crown Royal bag as a promotional tie-in.

Wesley Snipes addition to the franchise. (Weird to think of Coming to America as a franchise, but it is now.) Snipes was the man in the 90s (New Jack City, White Men Can’t Jump, Passenger 57) and he was fantastic in Dolemite is My Name. His getup for Coming 2 America looks hilarious and I can’t wait to see what he does with the character.

There are other elements that I’m excited about. There’s also some that I’m nervous about like that PG-13 rating. The first one was rated R. It essentially had a PG-13 vibe with a couple of bathers and some F-bombs, but there were 11 of those F-bombs and many of them were parts of classic lines. The movie wouldn’t be the same without them. What classic lines were scrapped from the sequel because they were trying to satisfy some ratings board? I’m also a little nervous that the sequel could lean too heavily on fan service and try too hard to recreate or reference classic moments from the original instead of forging its own path and making new classic moments. We will see. I’m choosing to be optimistic, but I’m keeping my expectations in check.

It’s a weird thing. I’ve received the screening link to watch the sequel. It’s currently sitting in my inbox as I type this. This is not the way I envisioned watching a Coming to America sequel. I figured that it would be, at least, you know… in a theater! Last year, I purchased a cool pair of McDowell’s-inspired Nikes and I was planning on wearing them to the premiere with the matching hat and my CtA gear. Last night, my wife, also a huge CtA fan, helped me transform our apartment into Zamunda to get ready for our own personal premiere. It’s weird. I feel like I should be watching it with family, with my brother who leaned on Eddie and co. when he was going through all that pain, in a theater full of excited fans. It should be an event with people dressed up like they are at Star Wars premieres. Out of an abundance of caution, however, none of that is happening and it’s been apparent for months now that it wouldn’t. It was always a disheartening thought.

In an effort to drum up excitement for the sequel, I did a countdown on social media, posting CtA facts, trivia, and artwork each day for a month. Most of my facebook friends who aren’t into CtA have probably unfollowed me by now and wonder why the hell I’m carrying on about this movie from the 80s, but for many, especially my CtA brethren, the reason’s apparent. It’s because I love this movie. It’s special to me and if a sequel’s getting made, I feel like it deserves a better, more ceremonial release than the one it’s getting. So grab your Soul Glo, put on your McDowell’s uniforms or don your finest lion head and sprinkle rose petals on the floor. And get ready for the sequel to one of the greatest comedies of all-time.

Coming 2 America hits Amazon March 5th. Enjoy!

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Salty Winters

http://www.nerdlocker.com

Salty Winters once said, "Everything I learned I learned from the movies." He was quoting Audrey Hepburn.