Eddie Murphy on the Legacy of ‘Coming to America’

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Vanessa Obioha was among a group of journalists who attended the virtual media parley with the cast of ‘Coming 2 America’ where Hollywood black royalty Eddie Murphy spoke loftily about the legacy of the original movie among other things

Hollywood star Eddie Murphy was barely scratching fame when he created and starred in ‘Coming to America’. Released in 1988, Murphy film credits at the time were not copious as it is today. His big-screen debut was in ‘48hrs’, a 1982 buddy cop comedy film. Prior to his film career launch, Murphy was widely known in America as a stand-up comedian, having gained popularity from his time at the Saturday Night Live (SNL) show. Directed by John Landis, ‘Coming to America’ was an instant hit in America and worldwide. Murphy imagined an African kingdom lavishly dripping with wealth — a far cry from how the continent was portrayed at the time.

In Zamunda, kings and queens are regally dressed in finesse, princes are awoken by an orchestra and the grounds they walked on are littered with rose petals. Murphy played Prince Akeem, heir to the Zamunda throne whose quest for real love took him and his best friend Semmi (Arsenio Hall) on a journey to America. Instead of sowing his royal oats like his father, King Jaffe Joffer (James Earl Jones) advised, he chose to live in squalor in the boroughs of New York City. The film had Murphy’s comedic flair sprinkled all over it. It was in the dialogues and the characters.

For instance, during a breakfast encounter with his son, King Jaffe asked his son who he (Murphy) was to which the young Prince replied that he was a man who has never tied his own shoes before. “Wrong,” replied King Jaffe, “You are a prince who has never tied his shoes. Believe me, I tied my own shoes once and it is an overrated experience.” There was also the randy Reverend Brown (Arsenio Hall), the soul singer Randy Watson (Eddie Murphy) with the fictional band Sexual Chocolate and of course the fictional rival of McDonald’s restaurant, McDowell played by John Amos. Moments such as Murphy’s choice of an apartment with rats scampering around added to the comedic feel of the film. These trappings gave ‘Coming to America’ a cult following, including in Nigeria.

Over three decades later, Murphy returns with a sequel, ‘Coming 2 America’. The announcement was made in 2017 and by 2019, filming began in Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta. Murphy alongside Hall, Jones, Amos, Shari Headley, Paul Bates reprised their roles, while Hollywood veterans like Morgan Freeman, Wesley Snipes as well as comedians Tracy Morgan and Leslie Jones were part of the new characters. There was a cameo appearance from Nigerian artiste Davido who also featured in the original soundtrack of the film. Other Nigerian artistes who lent their vocals to the Def Jam Recordings production include Tekno, Larry Gaaga and Tiwa Savage.

Originally slated for a theatrical release last December, the film was however picked by Amazon Studios due to the coronavirus pandemic. It will premiere on the Amazon Prime Video on March 5. At a virtual media parley, Murphy whose career spanned over three decades spoke loftily about the legacy of the film. “In the history of movies that had an all-black cast that was successful all around the world, the very first one ever to achieve that feat is ‘Coming to America,” said the 59-year-old actor and comedian. “There’s just a handful of movies that have had an all-black cast that has been successful all around the world. You can count them on one hand, and you’ll have fingers leftover. Two of those movies are ‘Coming to America’ and ‘Coming 2 America’. The legacy of this movie is that it’s accessible to all audiences.”

Explaining further, Murphy said that one of the reasons black Hollywood movies don’t travel that far is because it is only provocative to their race. “Around the world, they don’t give a sh*t about our stuff. Most of our movies, you know, shine light on some social injustice, civil unrest, or some sh*t that we went through. Around the world, they don’t give a sh*t about that. They just want the basic stuff. ‘Coming to America’ is not about any of those things. It’s just about family, and love, and doing the right thing and tradition. That’s what the movie is about. It’s these amazing images of black kings and queens and princes and princesses and all of that,” he continued. In his estimation, the only other film that draws parallels to his films is ‘Black Panther’, because of its depiction of Africa as developed society.

To ensure the sequel doesn’t lose the tenor of the original, a good number of black actors and comedians were employed, as well as African actors like South African Nomzamo Mbatha. The sequel still follows the storyline of a romantic comedy, only that this time around, Prince Akeem’s trip to America is not to find love but to find his bastard son, a street-savvy Queens native named Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler). Also, the women in Zamunda are no longer servile as in the first movie. Now blessed with three daughters, Prince Akeem trained them to be warriors too, a nod to women empowerment. Interestingly, Murphy cast one of his real-life daughters, Bella in the movie. “I saw the original when I was I was 11. It was cool to see my dad like that because that was the first time I saw royalty on screen. I felt really empowered,” she remarked.

Apart from their main characters, Murphy and Hall also reprised their other roles in the movie, with Hall playing a witch doctor in the sequel. Murphy revealed that he originally planned playing that part and Snipes’ General Izzi character but ended up sticking to his former roles. Although the prosthetics which were heavily deployed in the first movie had a deterrent effect on his decision. With the success of the original, Murphy is confident that the sequel would have a similar effect on audiences across the world but the litmus test for ‘Coming 2 America’ would probably lie in the efforts of the creators to tell a universal message that will be embraced by all in a slightly divided world.