Before there was Wakanda in “Black Panther,” there was Zamunda, in “Coming to America.”
It was a fantasized African kingdom ruled by an absurdly rich king whose son, the heir to the throne, confronts the marriage arranged for him by tradition and his parents, and balks. His preselected bride was beautiful enough, “a vision of perfection, an object of affection to quench your royal fire, completely free from infection, to be used at your discretion.”
But, says Prince Akeem (Eddie Murphy,) “I intend to find my bride . . . I want a woman who will arouse my intellect as well as my loins.”
“Where would you find such a woman?” his loyal servant, Semmi (Arsenio Hall,) asks him.
“In America,” the prince responds. But where in America?
“We’ll let fate decide,” says Akeem. “Heads, New York. Tails, Los Angeles.”
The flip comes up heads — specifically the head of Prince Akeem on a Zamundan coin. “We go to New York,” Akeem says.
“But where in New York can one find a woman with grace and elegance, a woman suitable for a king?” Semmi asks.
“Queens,” says the prince.
The film then follows the improbable American adventures of Akeem and Semmi. In America, the men disguise themselves as poor international students. They live in a rat-infested apartment and work as dishwashers at a fast-food restaurant called McDowell’s. And Akeem falls in love with Lisa McDowell, the daughter of the restaurant’s owner.
“Coming to America” was ahead of its time when it hit theaters on June 29, 1988, 30 years ago Friday, especially for blacks. The basic plot itself was standard boy meets girl and falls in love.
But it provided an alternative representation of blackness and created a space for actors of color that was anything but standard.
It featured Cuba Gooding Jr. in his first big screen appearance and Hall, before he became a mega late-night host. Paula Abdul choreographed a two-minute African dance number.
And 30 years later, the movie still remains one of the very few mainstream Hollywood black romantic comedies.
The movie rode off the popularity of Murphy. At the time, Murphy was becoming an international star and was one of the most in-demand comedic actors. He had wrapped up his run on “Saturday Night Live” and had two highly successful movies under his belt, “Trading Places” and “Beverly Hills Cop.”
But this was Murphy’s first major turn as a romantic lead.
The film wasn’t a critical success for Paramount Pictures.
“Eddie Murphy’s latest Coming is likely to leave the wreath-bearers, the frantic faithful, the crowd herders and the legions of line-waiters in numbed, disbelieving disappointment,” said The Hollywood Reporter. “With the superstar comic in a positively perfect role as an African prince come to New York to find a wife, Coming to America seems a can’t-miss premise and pairing. Distressingly, the film flops into the blandest of sitcom formats, never realizing its regal potential. Except for the effervescent Murphy, this very common comedy doesn’t have much more to strut than your average network rerun.”
Sheila Benson at the Los Angeles Times was less kind. “If this carefully collected cast, which includes James Earl Jones and Madge Sinclair as Murphy’s parents and John Amos as the father of his American dream girl, had been given anything to work with, there might have been no stopping them. Instead, John Landis, directing from Murphy’s original story, has created a plentiful waste of time and money.”
But “Coming to America” went on to become one of the highest-grossing films of all time featuring African Americans, reaping $128 million domestically at box offices and a reported $350 million internationally.
“We never thought it would have been so big. There really hasn’t been anything like it since,” Shari Headley, who played Lisa McDowell, told The Washington Post. Headley, a relative unknown at the time, said she didn’t even have an agent. Her friend suggested she take a chance and audition for the role. After the film premiered, Headley said she was “literally mobbed everywhere [she] went.”
“It’s really a milestone in black films,” Monica White Ndounou, an associate professor of theater at Dartmouth College, told The Washington Post. She noted that to this day, the most widely distributed and produced films about African Americans are set in slavery, the Civil Rights movement or the inner city.
“You get this narrative of black people always being embattled and oppressed,” she said. “Films like ‘Black Panther’ and ‘Coming to America’ change this.”
“I haven’t encountered one black person on this planet who doesn’t know at least one line from the movie. You can turn on Comedy Central any given month, and it’s on there at some point,” Ndounou said.
“Coming to America” was essentially two films in one, Racquel Gates, an assistant professor of cinema studies at CUNY, College of Staten Island, told The Post. On one hand it was a romantic comedy; and on the other, a film about the black cultural experience, albeit laced with an element of fantasy.
As Ndounou points out, these scenes weren’t written in depth in the script and were heavily improvised, a nod to both Murphy and Hall’s experience as stand-up comics. There was an ethnic familiarity and authenticity in these scenes where the barbers persuade Akeem not to get a Jheri curl and at the pageant, where the soul band Sexual Chocolate sings “The Greatest Love of All.”
There has not been such a successful romantic comedy with a majority black cast since the film’s release. Plenty of well-known urban romantic dramas have achieved a measure of popularity, such as “Love Jones,” “The Best Man,” and “Love and Basketball.” Yet, these films didn’t come close to reaching the kind of success or cult status that “Coming to America” did.
Gates analyzed this by saying, “I think we always have to be very cautious about judging the success of a film, especially a black film, by box office numbers because studios are notorious for underselling black-cast films and not promoting them.”
Paramount did not release advance screeners of “Coming to America” for critics “because they had a lot of hesitation about whether the film was going to do well because they considered it a black film,” Gates said.
But “Coming to America’s” success was largely due to its crossover appeal. As Ndounou wrote in her book, “Shaping the Future of African American Film” the “jokes in the film generate communal laughter among African Americans while establishing bonds between African Americans, white Americans, and the foreign market.” There are also no interracial conflicts between whites and blacks in the film.
Also unique, Ndounou noted, was that Murphy and Hall played lead characters, as well as several supporting characters. This served as a precedent for subsequent films. Many black comedians today play multiple roles in their films, including sometimes cross-dressing, such as Tyler Perry’s “Madea” franchise and Martin Lawrence “Big Momma’s House” films.
Wakanda in “Black Panther” and Zamunda in “Coming to America” have inevitably evoked comparisons.
As Zeba Blay wrote in HuffPost in February:
The last time we saw the kind of opulence, grandeur and pure African style displayed in Marvel’s latest box office juggernaut “Black Panther” was, perhaps, 30 years ago, in the classic Eddie Murphy comedy “Coming to America.”
The film overflows with images of Africans looking amazing ― in (lion) furs, in raffia, in blinding gold. Never mind that Zamunda, protagonist Prince Akeem’s birthplace, is not a real country. Never mind that the costumes he and his cohorts wear borrow from all over the continent, from west to east to south Africa.
The setting of Zamunda in the beginning of the film was profoundly important, Ndounou said. “You had this representation of an ancestral homeland that had not been impoverished, that had not been colonized, that had black people with exotic pets,” Ndounou said.
The unreal image offset the omnipresent TV ads of the era for charities seeking contributions for starving African children.
In the mid-1990s a drama of another kind unfolded over the film. The late humorist Art Buchwald won a breach of contract lawsuit after demonstrating to a judge’s satisfaction that the original idea for the movie was his, not Murphy’s. After an epic battle over the money due to Buchwald, he and co-plaintiff Alain Bernheim eventually settled with Paramount in 1995 for more than $1 million.
The dispute has not detracted from the film’s standing, and “Coming to America” endures.
Some 30 years after the film opened, when “Black Panther” swept through the nation’s theaters, more than a few fans showed up to see it dressed as Prince Akeem of Zamunda.
And 30 years later, said Headley, “people still stop me on the street and call me Lisa.”