Eddie Murphy was the King of Comedy by the late-1980s, following a string of box office hits: 48 Hrs. (1982), Trading Places (1983), Beverly Hills Cop (1984), The Golden Child (1986), and Beverly Hills Cop II (1987). And that’s without mentioning his tenure on Saturday Night Live (1980-84) and stand-up comedy, which led to the influential HBO special Eddie Murphy Delirious (1983) and culminated in Eddie Murphy Raw (1987)—which remains the highest-grossing stand-up comedy concert film to this day. Who else was going to play African royalty in 1988?
Prince Akeem Joffer (Murphy) is the pampered heir to the throne of Zamunda, a fictional African country from a Richard Pryor routine. He’s lived for 21 years with rose petals scattered at his feet wherever he walks, beautiful women bathing him each morning (“the royal penis is clean, your Highness”), and even has servants to wipe his royal backside. But such opulence has left Akeem listless, as his father King Jaffe Joffer (James Earl Jones) expects him to marry a woman born to obey his every command. Trouble is, Akeem would rather marry for love, to a woman who can speak her own mind, so he delays the nuptials in order to “sow his royal oats”—secretly intending to find a more appealing bride in Queens, New York City. And so, arriving in the impoverished district of Long Island City with his aghast steward Semmi (Arsenio Hall), Akeem rents a rat-infested apartment in a rundown tenement and goes to work at a McDonalds fast-food restaurant knock-off called McDowells. He has 40 days to find his perfect match.
This is a wonderful premise for a comedy. Murphy himself is credited with developing the story of Coming to America, which was turned into a script by his SNL cohorts David Sheffield and Barry W. Blaustein, but screenwriter Art Buchwald sued Paramount for stealing a script treatment they’d optioned back in 1982 called It’s a Cruel, Cruel World (then renamed King for a Day). They settled out of court. Whoever’s idea it was, this is perfect material for Murphy and Coming to America became an unexpectedly big hit, grossing somewhere in the region of $288-350M.
The up-and-coming filmmaker Spike Lee had recently chastised Murphy for failing to use his celebrity to lift up other black people struggling in the industry, so Coming to America was perhaps a response to that criticism. This film is overflowing with black actors from the past and present, but also finds small roles for future megastars (the best example being Samuel L. Jackson as the robber Akeem disarms with a mop handle). But it’s true many of the multitude are played by Murphy and Arsenio Hall themselves, both unrecognisable behind Rick Baker’s incredible make-up. I remember hearing about their multiple roles at the time, and it’s easy to spot Murphy as barbershop owner Clarence and terrible soul singer Randy Watson, but it wasn’t until later I realised he also played Saul the Jewish barbershop customer. Or that Hall was playing Morris the barber, not only Reverend Brown.
Coming to America began the trend of Murphy taking numerous roles in his comedies. It found a way for him to be the handsome and hilarious hero audiences expected at the time, while also indulging his edgier SNL sketch sensibilities to play outrageous caricatures. He most famously returned to this well for the two Nutty Professor (1996, 2000) movies, again hidden behind Baker’s Academy Award-winning make-up. Nutty Professor temporarily rejuvenated Murphy’s career until it slipped into the family-friendly doldrums of the Dr Dolittle movies (1998, 2001), The Adventures of Pluto Nash (2002), Daddy Day Care (2003), and The Haunted Mansion (2003).
What works about Coming to America is the strength and power of its fish-out-of-water premise, as it’s juicy material to have an unimaginably wealthy prince suddenly mopping floors in a Queens fast-food joint. But while it might have been easy to make this humiliation something Akeem dislikes, he’s the one who wants to live in poverty! The film would have otherwise been too similar to Trading Places, of course, which Murphy and director John Landis (An American Werewolf in London) had last made together.
The fact Akeem finds genuine joy in being stripped of his wealth and privileges is both unexpected and funny, juxtaposed by his faithful valet Semmi finding the entire situation a living nightmare. Murphy was known for being a wise-cracking maverick in most of his films (perfected in Beverly Hills Cop’s Axel Foley), but Akeem gives him a completely different type of person to play. He’s sweet and charming as Akeem, who’s mostly a straight-man to events happening around him.
The aforementioned John Landis directed Coming to America, which is something people often forget. It seems strange a black filmmaker wasn’t hired for a project of this nature, and Murphy was allegedly set to direct himself until he decided to use his influence to hire his Trading Places colleague. Landis was coming off two films that weren’t as successful as one might have expected—Spies Like Us (1985) and ¡Three Amigos! (1986)—and those were the highlights amidst unmitigated flops Into the Night (1985) and Amazon Women on the Moon (1987). The controversy over Landis’s role in the death of actor Vic Morrow and two children, Myca Dinh Le and Renee Shin-Yi Chen, while making Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), had also clung to him over the years of investigation into the tragedy. Murphy handing him Coming to America came at a good time. Its success kept Landis’s career from flatlining, although a run of flops in the 1990s ended it for good by the time ill-conceived sequel Blues Brothers 2000 (1998) arrived.
Sadly, Murphy and Landis didn’t see eye to eye during their second working partnership. The director later claimed Murphy’s fame had gone to his head and the comedian working on Trading Places who was “young and full of energy and curious and funny and fresh and great” had turned into “the pig of the world”. Murphy’s take on the situation is markedly different, saying Landis was “still treating me like a kid”, and that he should’ve been more grateful for being thrown a lifeline after Landis had “just done three fucked-up pictures in a row” and now “his career was hanging by a thread.” Whatever the truth of the matter, remarkably, they reunited for a third and final time six years later on Beverly Hills Cop III (1993), but that movie’s critical failure put the kibosh on any more collaborations.
Coming to America is undoubtedly one of Eddie Murphy’s best movies. The premise leaps off the page as something you can’t wait to see play out, the writers embellish the core story with lots of character-based skits for Murphy and Hall to have fun with (which could easily be cut from the movie and not break the plot), and there’s a feeling of joy emanating from the screen. Landis even found time to do something I’ve always found delightful, in shooting scenes with Mortimer (Don Ameche) and Randolph (Ralph Bellamy) from Trading Places (both now homeless on the streets after losing their fortunes). I can’t think of another example of a movie updating audiences on what happened to characters from another movie.
More importantly to Coming to America’s success, this was the first time Murphy played an easygoing character playing to his charms as a straight romantic lead. That gives it a lot of appeal, especially if the smart-ass types Murphy played in Trading Places, Beverly Hills Cop, and The Golden Child always grated on you slightly.
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USA | 1988 | 117 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
director: John Landis.
writers: David Sheffield & Barry W. Blaustein (story by Eddie Murphy).
starring: Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall, James Earl Jones, John Amos, Madge Sinclair & Shari Headley.