‘Coming To America’ Turns 35 This Year

I grew up in a very racist and prejudiced northwest Georgia community, but even Coming to America had many people laughing their heads off and quoting the movie years and years ago. And with it being Dr. Martin Luther (the) King Day, it’s as good as a time to reflect on the movie that made a fortune and is one of the most quotable movies ever.

Last week, Eddie Murphy received the Cecil B. DeMille Award for his work at the Golden Globes. It’s hard to think he’s been working since the late 1970s in stand-up and then on Saturday Night Live, basically saving the show from getting canceled during the Dick Ebersole years. One of the movie’s most memorable moments is when the movie’s protagonist, pampered African prince Akeem Joffer (Murphy) is trying to find his bride. He goes into the barbershop near his apartment to ask the barbers if they could give him a Jheri curl which is what the popular product Soul Glo does.

One of the barbers, Clarence (also Murphy) tells Akeem how his hair looks natural and he wears it the same way Dr. King would and not many people do that anymore. Then, he begins telling the other barbers, Morris (Arsenio Hall), Sweets (Clint Smith) and their friend, the Jewish retiree, Saul (also Murphy) about how he met Dr. King in the 1962 in Memphis. Well, meet isn’t a word. Clarence says that Dr. King hit him in his chest, knocking the wind out of him, but apologizing because he thought Clarence was someone else.

It’s one of many memorable scenes in the movie and you get the feeling that much of it was made up by Murphy on the spot, like a lot of the movie. The movie showcases the talents of Murphy and Hall (who at the time was mostly known as a voice actor/comic) as they play multiple roles. Akeem’s servant, Semmi (Hall) are in the Queens borough of New York City as Akeem has explained to his father, King Jaffer Joffer (James Earl Jones), he’s 21 and never left the fictional African country of Zamunda.

But Akeem has grown tired of the pampered lifestyle he lives in Zamunda. He can’t even use the bathroom by himself and has people brushing his teeth and even bathing him (which he doesn’t mind.) In Queens, he wants to come off as a normal person. Despite Semmi’s disgust, they rent the apartment in a rundown building in a poorer neighborhood. After striking out at many of the bars and clubs in Queens, they follow Clarence’s suggestion they attand a Black Awareness Rally organized in part by Lisa McDowell (Shari Headley) who catches Akeem’s eye.

Lisa works for her father, Cleo (John Amos), at his popular fast-food restaurant McDowell’s. modeled a lot after the McDonald’s chain but with some changes. “They have the golden arches. Mine are the golden arcs,” he says. And they don’t use sesame-seed buns. Akeem and Semmi get jobs working at the restaurant doing entry-level jobs like mopping floors and cleaning the windows. But slowly Akeem and Lisa become friendly.

Lisa is dating Darryl Jenks (Eriq La Salle), whose father owns Soul Glo. Darryl is rude and obnoxious as well as flaunts his family’s wealth, something Lisa doesn’t like. He takes credit for a huge donation Akeem made to repair a community park. Despite living lavishly, Darryl is very cheap and doesn’t even donate a dollar and expects to get stuff for free. But Cleo wants her to be with Darryl, so she won’t have to struggle like he and his late wife did. Lisa’s sister, Patrice (Allison Dean), becomes more interested in Akeem as he double-dates to a college basketball game with Darryl and Lisa.

Eventually, Darryl oversteps and convinces Cleo to pigeonhole Lisa at a party he is having to make it appear that Darryl proposed marriaged to her and she said yes. However, Lisa is outraged and turns to Akeem to vent. They eventually express feelings for each other but when Semmi sends a telegram that they need $1 million, King Jaffe and Queen Aoleon (Madge Sinclair) make an urgent trip to NYC with their servants including Oha (Paul Bates). This could threaten the relationship between Akeem and Lisa.

Both Akeem and Lisa have parents who want the best for them, but don’t understand what their children really need. When Akeem tries to tell Jaffe about how he wants to visit other places, his father just passes it off to “sow his royal oats.” He’s angry to learn that Akeem works, especially at a fast-food restaurant where Akeem takes joy in his duties. And like Cleo, he doesn’t mind overstepping his boundaries to tell Lisa that Akeem’s already engaged. Cleo, while he’s grateful for the work Akeem has done, especially with stopping an armed robber (Samuel L. Jackson in one of his earliest roles), doesn’t like Lisa spending time with him outside of work because Akeem has lied about his life in Africa saying he was a goat herder. Yet, when he finds out that Akeem is royalty and even the money from Zamunda has his face printed on it, he’s very glad for the two of them.

I think this is what gives the movie it’s little special touch that makes it more than just various characters played by Murphy and Hall. It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white, Christian or Muslim, from the Far East or living in Western Culture, a lot of people can relate to having parents like Akeem and and Lisa. Also, this is one of the first times Murphy was allowed to play someone who wasn’t always on. I think I heard Roger Ebert say it best referring to Chevy Chase in Funny Farm, “It’s a performance, not an appearance.”

Akeem Joffer is a more relaxed character. Murphy has played Axel Foley, a wise-acre cop, and Reggie Hammond, a wise-acre criminal, as well as Billy Ray Valentine, a wise-acre bum. But this is the first time he plays someone who isn’t trying to con or scheme his way through everything. Akeem is a little gullible and niave which makes him more relatable. Happy to see an environment different than what he’s used to, he’s thrilled that someone will scream “Fuck you!” to him when he yells, “Good morning, my neighbors!” so he screams “Yes, yes, fuck you too!”

Murphy would go on to play these same types of characters as Sherman Klump in The Nutty Professor movies and Jiff Ramsey in Bowfinger. Some people close to Murphy say he’s actually more quieter and reserve in private like Akeem. Not to say that he doesn’t make us laugh as Clarence, Saul or Randy Watson, a “good and terrible” soul singer who has his own band, Sexual Chocolate, and performs “The Greatest Love of All” to a bored, unimpressed crowd (with the exception of Sweets) at the rally.

In many ways, this is also a reflection of Murphy’s life at the time. He was only 19 when he started on SNL and 21 when 48 Hrs. made him a star. John Landis, who directed Murphy in this and Trading Places, said there was a considerable difference between the five years. “The guy on Trading Places was young and full of energy and curious and funny and fresh and great. The guy on Coming to America was the pig of the world,” Landis said but still saying Murphy was wonderful in the movie. However, Landis is one of the filmmakers whose behavior is also questionable, such as the helicopter accident on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie that killed Vic Morrow and two children. Murphy was still young, at 27, when making this movie. So even if he did put on airs during certain moments, it can be expected.

However, the movie would be embroiled in some controversy neither Landis nor Murphy anticipated as humorist Art Buchwald sued both of them and Paramount Pictures allegedly that he had written a spec treatment in the early 1980s similar in plot. The courts would rule in favor of Buchwald. However Landis said both he and Murphy benefitted financially because Paramount was trying to hide some residuals due to them through “Hollywood accounting.” Murphy gets a story credit on the movie and the other writers, David Sheffield and Barry W. Blaustein, have reported the lawsuit hurt their reputation.

This along with the re-editing of Another 48 Hrs. resulted in Murphy have a bad relationship with Paramount in the 1990s. They wouldn’t release him from a contract to do Professor until he made Vampire in Brooklyn. This would later be an in-joke in Bowfinger in which Murphy playing Hollywood celebrity star Kit Ramsey says he’s not expecting any scripts from Paramount. Murphy wouldn’t work with Paramount again until the sequel Coming 2 America.

But aside from all that happened behind the scenes, Coming to America still remains just as good today as it did back in 1988. Considering most movies with a predominantly black cast weren’t big blockbusters, it’s very impressive for the time and ushered in a new filmmaking focusing on different stories featuring predominantly black casts. I take some offense with Spike Lee saying Murphy didn’t do much during the 1980s. He was just a young man in his early to mid-20s. Along with Jackson in a small role, other actors like Vondie Curtis-Hall and Vanessa Bell appear in small roles. Cuba Gooding Jr. has a non-speaking role as a young man in a barber chair as Clarence, Morris, Sweets and Saul talk about who was the greatest boxer of all time.

Jackson had previous appeared in Eddie Murphy: Raw during an opening sketch in which he played Murphy’s uncle. The sketch was co-written and directed by Keenan Ivory Wayans and featured Deon Richmond as a young Murphy and Tatayana Ali as a relative. The concert part of the movie was directed by Robert Townsend.

Yet, there was some criticism that Headley had lighter brown skin compared to both Dean and Bell. I think they were also looking at Vanessa Williams as well but found Headley to have more of a simple quality they were searching for. When Prince Harry married Megan Markle in 2018, people drew comparison between her and Lisa McDowell.

The sequel didn’t live up to the original. Very few sequels do. Coming to America was like lightning in a bottle, a rare movie that a wonderful combination of actors, comics, jokes and a great story. I would even argue it’s held up more over the years than Murphy’s other movies (Beverly Hills Cop, 48 Hrs. and Trading Places) during the 1980s. Not to say those movies aren’t good, it’s just that America has that special spark to it that makes it better.

What do you think? Please comment.

Published by bobbyzane420

I'm an award winning journalist and photographer who covered dozens of homicides and even interviewed President Jimmy Carter on multiple occasions. A back injury in 2011 and other family medical emergencies sidelined my journalism career. But now, I'm doing my own thing, focusing on movies (one of my favorite topics), current events and politics (another favorite topic) and just anything I feel needs to be posted. Thank you for reading.

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