For The Culture reviews: Coming to America
Welcome friends to another lit addition to our series, For The Culture Reviews. This week we'll be revisiting another timeless black movie, Coming to America! Much like the Paid in Full review, we'll be going over a classic to see just how well it holds up and offer a chance for movie fans to talk about something for us and by us. Let's chat.
Coming to America made its debut June 29, 1988. It was one of the only black feature films that year. The odds weren't in Coming to America's favor with the likes of Beetlejuice, Die Hard, The Blob, Hairspray and a third Rambo all being released in the same year, but the movie held its own in a sea of white movies! The film went on to be the 3rd highest grossing movie of 1988 behind Rain Man and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, respectively. This being Eddie Murphy's seventh feature film and first go at writing, it solidified his role as a great comedian-turned-actor and established a staple in his career of playing multiple roles in one movie.
The story follows Prince of Zamunda, Akeem (Eddie Murphy), who just turned 21 and has never even tied his own shoes. It is Zamundan tradition for the king to be to meet his arranged bride-to-be for the first time on his 21st birthday. Akeem is reluctant to marry a woman who isn't independent and doesn't truly love him for who he is rather than what he is, but his parents King Jaffe Joffer (James Earl Jones) and Queen Aeoleon (Madge Sinclair) reassure him that this is tradition and he'll soon come to love his bride just as his parents did. Akeem ain't feeling it. After meeting the supposed bride Imani Izzi (Vanessa Bell), Akeem realizes that she is nothing more than a glorified servant who, since birth, has been trained to please and serve the king. This prompts Akeem and his friend Semmi (Arsenio Hall) to go to America of all places and look for a queen. And where do they end up? Well New York City, of course (although one could argue a true queen exists on the South side of Chicago, but that's another argument.)
Once in Queens, Akeem insists on finding the poorest/cheapest/dirtiest apartment he could find (a lot of options in NYC) so that he can experience the life of a regular guy. The two stop into a barbershop just below their apartment and we're introduced to the owner Clarence (Murphy), white Jewish man Saul (also played by Murphy), Morris (Hall) and Sweets (Clint Smith). Little known fact: the guy in the barber's chair getting his haircut was none other than Cuba Gooding Jr. in his first feature film debut. The pair finds themselves in a New York club and the women were just all bad. We get some hilarious give and take between Murphy and Hall and even see Hall dressed as a woman pursuing Akeem in the club; it was gold. After an unsuccessful night out, the locals in the barbershop suggest that they attend a Black awareness rally that's raising money for inner city youths. It's here that we meet the love interest Lisa McDowell (Shari Headley); we love a woke queen. We also get another hilarious character out of Eddie Murphy in Randy Watson, the rather zesty lead singer in the group Sexual Chocolate. Akeem sets his sights on Lisa and ends up getting himself and Semmi a job at her father's restaurant McDowell's, a McDonald's rip off. John Amos delivers a campy yet classic performance as Cleo McDowell and we meet his other daughter Patrice (Allison Dean) and Lisa's boyfriend Darryl Jenks (Eriq La Salle), the soul-glo prince.
Akeem tirelessly tries time and time again to win Lisa over but between keeping up the facade that he's poor, and keeping Semmi under control, it's a tough task. It wasn't until Mr. McDowell and Darryl conspire against Lisa to force her into a proposal that sent her right into my boy Hakeem's arms. Semmi, who is over this broke boy lifestyle, sends a telegraph to King Jaffe for more money. This brings Akeem's family to America and outing him as a prince to Mr. McDowell. McDowell, being the money hungry man he is, is ecstatic to learn of Akeem's true riches, but Lisa is not. I'll go into this in a bit, but that part always blew me, but I digress. Lisa runs off and Akeem runs after her, and in a final attempt to win her love, offers to renounce his throne. Lisa declines and Akeem returns home to Zamunda for his arranged wedding. When all is said and done, to his surprise, Lisa turns out to be the bride-to-be behind the veil on his wedding day and the two get married and ride off into Black Excellence.
Albeit, the plot itself suffers from the will they/won't they/love at first sight/you should've trusted me with the truth clichés, but Eddie Murphy & co. did such a great job at adding a breath of fresh air to this regurgitated plot. The comedy in this movie is some of Murphy and Hall's best, not to mention the outstanding performances we got from Murphy, Hall, James Earl Jones, Headley and especially John Amos as Cleo McDowell. Honestly, if it weren't for the acting of Eddie Murphy & Arsenio Hall, this movie, with the same exact jokes, would've fell flat.
One of the biggest things that bothered me with this movie is Lisa’s reaction to Akeem being a prince. One could argue that she was mad because she was used to the men in her life lying to her and tricking her into thinking something, but I won’t lie I feel like that’s a reach. Maybe I’m too used to Chicago women that would be fake mad for like 10 minutes then ask when she can get her crown.
The plot is a little too thin to hold up on its own, but Murphy and Hall take it home. For a movie to compete with the likes of Hairspray, Beetlejuice & Die Hard and still come up as third highest grossing movie of the year is impressive. With a budget of only $39M, the movie grossed an astounding $288M. All in all, the movie holds up and solidifies itself as a classic. I'm giving it an 8/10.