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Eddie Murphy was at the peak of his 80s imperial phase when he delivered what would become one of his most enduring hits: a big-studio romantic comedy about an earnest African prince who defied tradition to find true love in Queens, New York, a world of lingering jheri curls, garrulous barbershops, and pre-gentrification hustle.
Coming to America worked as both an affectionate satire of late-80s Black culture and a valentine to the African diaspora: its cartoonish-but-aspirational nation of Zamunda gave audiences a regal Africa that Hollywood had rarely if ever shown, one that continued to reverberate across everything from Beyonce’s extended music films to the fictional utopia of Wakanda.
Arriving 33 year later, Coming 2 America opens back in Zamunda, where Prince Akeem (Murphy) and his Queen, Lisa (Shari Headley), are celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary. They have three smart and skilful daughters, but one dynastic problem: Zamunda law dictates that the heir to the throne must be a son. Akeem’s youthful disobedience has calcified into a kind of middle age traditionalism, and with his father, King Jaffe Joffer (James Earl Jones), ailing, he’s fallen into a crisis of masculinity.
Making matters worse, General Izzi (Wesley Snipes), the militant leader of neighbouring Nextdoria, is threatening war unless Akeem agrees to offer up his eldest daughter, Meeka (KiKi Layne), for an arranged marriage. (The general is also, perhaps understandably, pissed that Akeem left his sister at the altar three decades ago).
Luckily for soon-to-be-King Akeem there’s a retroactive plot workaround: via some clever CGI de-aging and a psychedelic drug haze, it seems that young Akeem had a one-night stand with Mary (Leslie Jones) back in Queens in 1988, fathering an illegitimate son he never knew existed.
Jumping at the chance to broker a new family marriage and extend his bloodline, Akeem once again recruits his faithful manservant Semmi (Arsenio Hall) and they return to New York to find his now-thirtysomething son Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler) — a ticket scalper going nowhere, who’s about to hit the royal jackpot.
In many ways Coming 2 America — directed by Craig Brewer (Dolemite) from a script credited to Kenya Barris (Black-ish, Girls Trip) and original writers Barry W. Blaustein and David Sheffield — struggles with the dilemmas that face decades-later sequels.
The mandate for younger, generation-extending characters jostles with the need to please returning audiences, leaving everyone slightly underserved in the mix; even acknowledging the creative bankruptcy of mainstream American cinema, which this film cheerfully does at one point, comes across as a cynical line that’s virtually indistinguishable from the phenomenon.
Coming 2 America’s return trip to Queens — a world so integral to the fish-out-of-water charms of the original — is fleeting and largely perfunctory, allowing the film just enough time to catch up with the somehow ageless denizens of the My-T Sharp barbershop (Murphy and Hall, again in hilarious prosthetics) and issue a few obligatory jokes about gentrification and political correctness.
With Akeem’s son Lavelle, his mother Mary and the deadbeat Uncle Reem (Tracy Morgan) in tow, the film instead spends the majority of its runtime in Zamunda, where the culture clash gags, amusing as they are for a spell, just aren’t as funny in reverse.
The film also doesn’t have the clean narrative arc of the original, whose simple but satisfying dramatic thrust meant it had ample opportunities to play in the margins, resulting in an endlessly quotable supporting gallery of rogues, crackpots, and sweet-natured caricatures. (A milieu that would’ve been perfect for a filmmaker like Brewer, whose ill-mannered tendencies electrified Hustle and Flow and Black Snake Moan.)
But Coming 2 America manages to ride many of those callbacks, with hard-to-resist cameos from most of the original cast that range from the inevitable (the return of everyone’s favourite oily preacher and R&B showman) to the emotional (the great John Amos, last seen randomly gracing Uncut Gems, delivers a fatherly speech that evokes his multigenerational legacy as an actor).
There are comedic highlights among the many moving parts, too: chief among them Hall, in gnarled old-age make-up, as a royal psychic given to premonitions; and Snipes, whose loping gait and absurd “African” accent is probably too ridiculous to be offensive — especially when he’s claiming to be the inspiration for The Lion King’s Mufasa, or announcing himself with a litany of titles that would make Idi Amin blush.
Snipes’ infectious energy almost throws the rest of the film off balance: between this and his performance in Dolemite, he’s headed toward some kind of comedic career renaissance that’s a total joy to behold.
Meanwhile, the dance sequences choreographed by music video legend Fatima Robinson — whose routines for Michael Jackson’s Remember the Time and Busta Rhymes’ Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See riffed on the original Coming to America — are pretty spectacular, even by the standards of their iconic forebears.
There’s both an unexpected tribute to Prince and a series of musical guests whose identities it would be churlish to spoil here.
Coming 2 America is obviously a work of great love from everyone involved, an offering to an audience that has kept its predecessor close to their hearts for so long. At the same time, the film often fumbles around for thematic coherence, too swept up in its feel-good delirium to sharpen focus.
The decision to foreground Akeem’s son, and reckon with the family’s patriarchal legacy, means well-worn terrain gets covered — a pre-wedding dash to America, lessons about learning to be your own man in the face of tradition — while Akeem’s conservative backslide comes off a touch retrograde given the 1988 film’s relatively progressive story, in which Lisa was a determined civic leader and independent woman.
Perhaps it’s for the best that this sequel didn’t pursue the increasingly predictable and cynical gender reversal scenario. Even so, it’s a shame that the film can’t quite figure out how to integrate Akeem’s daughters — especially heiress-in-waiting Meeka — instead relegating their ascent to a girl-power-by-numbers side plot that wants for comedy sparks.
Still, the film boasts not just the comforting pleasures of a reunion with old friends, but those of a cultural hangout where three decades of cinema convene in celebration.
In the key romance, Lavelle and his Zamundan groomer Mirembe (Nomzamo Mbatha) bond over her formative love of Black American cinema, the kinds of films — like the Barbershop series — that followed the path paved by Coming to America.
Lavished with Ruth E. Carter’s kaleidoscopic costumes — which draw both on the original’s Hollywood vision of Africa and her own decades of work from Spike Lee to Black Panther — Coming 2 America feels like a celebration of the exchange of cultural ideas, an extended homecoming, and a well-deserved victory lap for a film that, all these years later, has given us so much.
Coming 2 America is now available to download on BestXplorer