Today at Word, we reflect on 1988’s “Coming to America”. This comedy not only displays Eddie Murphy at the height of his comic powers but also makes subtle moves to engage with the complex issue of African American identity.
The film concerns the prince of an African monarchy traveling to New York in order to escape familiar privilege and find an American woman to be his wife. Prince Akeem (notably not the more Arab “Hakeem”) conceals his royal lineage in order to better blend into the populace as well as find a woman who appreciates him for qualities beyond wealth and status.
Of course, this plot relies heavily on old story pieces of wealth, honesty and disguise. But it stands out from the Hollywood crowd by virtue of the contemporary context in which it couches those elements. The film depicts the main character’s homeland, Zamunda, as a place where members of the royal family lead luxurious lives, so wholly ensconced by wealth and aristocratic tradition that ordinary living seems unimaginable. The United States, by contrast, appears through the film’s take on Queens, New York: a working-class salad of strivers and criminals. When Akeem’s American romantic rival, Darryl, refers to the prince’s African upbringing by telling him, “Wearing clothes must be a new experience for you,” the movie confirms its stand American ignorance.
While “Coming to America” could have centered around a European monarchy, an upper-class archetype well represented in Hollywood films, it opts for depicting sophisticated Africans. It challenges our stereotypes of where wealth and high education can exist.
While many Americans conceive of Africa as a uniformly destitute region whose cultures have never reached the grand accomplishments of their European counterparts, this comedy reminds us that great forms of civilization have and do exist in what we still too often consider the “dark continent”.
Perhaps the director wears rose-colored glasses as he makes no note of the very real economic and political problems that many African nations face, but one major motion picture with African aristocrats is better than none.
And, unsurprisingly, the movie’s subtext comes through most vibrantly through its use of language. Akeem not only speaks fluent English (thereby defying the stereotype of the ignorant foreigner), he also speaks with remarkably standard grammar and enunciation. His expressions do not bear the linguistic hallmarks of African American English. As he converses with natives of Queens, one can hardly make the common misunderstanding of AAE as an African language. Akeem’s character reminds us of the United States’ cultural distance from Africa without allowing for that distance to be expressed by a contrast of the advanced West with poor Africa.
Perhaps if other popular movies were as careful as “Coming to America” in depicting cultural dynamics between the US and Africa, not so many harmful stereotypes would persist.
(Originally published by the Daily News on June 29, 1988. This story was written by Kathleen Carroll.)
Once upon a time in a magical kingdom of Hollywood, there lived a merry young court jester named Eddie Murphy. He became such a big box office draw that the Hollywood kingmakers considered him a prince among comics.
One day, in his not-so-humble studio bungalow, the self-proclaimed leader of “the black pack” told the current ruler of Paramount Pictures his latest story idea. He explained that he wanted to play a handsome African prince who, after 21 years of contact with such devoted slaves as the scrub team of nubile women who take care of his bathing needs, decides he wants a wife who’ll talk back to him.
Just where does he go to find this outspoken commoner? Why, to Queens, New York, of course.
Well, the king of Paramount could hardly say no to Prince Eddie, for every movie he touches seems to turn to gold at the box office. So he wisely agreed to the prince’s wishes and no doubt he will laugh all the way to the bank.
For “Coming to America,” the dream project of the clown prince of Hollywood, is an adorably amusing upscale fairy tale, an endearingly romantic comedy which has all the fabulous fake opulence of an old-fashioned Hollywood musical as well as the traditionally sappy happy ending.
The movie gets off to a delightful start, introducing Murphy as the overly coddled Prince Akeem, the happy-go-lucky heir of the throne of the mythical kingdom of Zamunda. His “concerned dad,” the King, played with his usual majestic force by the wonderful James Earl Jones, stages a spectacular engagement party - complete with a Hollywood-style native dance production number - to introduce Akeem to his future bride, a gorgeous creature who has been trained to obey his every wish.
But Akeem wants to play the dating game. So he and his official pal Semmi (Arsenio Hall) jet to New York with “the royal baggage” and, at Akeem’s command, move into a rat-infested hellhole in Queens.
Akeem, an aggressive jolly sort of fellow whom Murphy plays with regal calm, a snooty upper-class accent and a winning smile, is just thrilled to be surrounded by hostile “real Americans” who never delete the expletives from their conversations.
He especially likes the old-timers down at the corner barber shop (you will be surprised to learn just who is playing the grizzled barbers and their Jewish customer).
Akeem spots his future princess at a “Black Awareness” fundraiser. She’s the enchanting Lisa McDowell (Shari Headley), the daughter of the money-conscious owner of an imitation McDonald’s restaurant where they serve “Big Mics’ instead of “Big Macs.” (John Amos is especially comical in the role when he becomes aware that his daughter has nabbed a real live prince.)
Akeem, who does not even know how a mop works, cheerfully takes a lowly job as the garbage collector at McDowell’s, where he tries to chat up Lisa. She, to his chagrin, is currently dating the filthy rich Darryl (Eriq LaSalle), the slick, hopelessly phony heir to the “Soul Glo” hair products fortune.
There are admittedly no big belly laughs in this cute fairy tale. And the movie could have used more editing - it drags in spots. Still, Murphy has dealt audiences the movie equivalent of a royal flush and he is now clearly Hollywood’s reigning king of comedy.
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