Nothing new to see here, move along.
Like the stereotypical narratives we have come to expect from Hollywood about Africa, “Coming 2 America” offers nothing new to audiences despite the 33 years that separate the original from the sequel.
The fictional country of Zamunda is a mixed bag of persistent stereotypes about African poverty, disease, conflict, poor leadership and hypersexual women who lack agency, all coated in Eddie Murphy’s brand of slapstick comedy that uses negative stereotypes to get easy laughs. It doesn’t add much nuance or context to the continent’s story, but it does put Africa front and center on a global stage.
Although the responsibility of telling nuanced and authentic stories about Africa belongs to the continent’s storytellers, not to Hollywood, until they have the platform and reach that Hollywood’s movies and actors do, Africans will continue to watch, and hold them to account for the stories they tell about Africa and our expectations are much higher now than they were then.
When the movie was first released in 1988, it was easy to get away with stereotypical characterizations about the continent – there were fewer voices to challenge things and no social media platforms from which to do it. But it’s 2021, and expectations were justifiably high because the movie was produced at an important moment in time. In the era of #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo and other movements that have renewed global discussions about race, gender, and misrepresentation, “Coming 2 America” has turned out to be a big disappointment to those hoping for a new framing for the continent.
Although it may seem like a huge and arguably misplaced responsibility for one film – especially a comedy – to reframe an entire continent, the American media and entertainment industry has the kind of reach and influence that make it powerful. Ten of the most-watched films of 2019 globally were made in the U.S so the expectations thrust on “Coming 2 America” were bound to happen.
Without ruining the plot, it’s safe to say pretty much everything about the film lacks nuance; Zamunda is on the verge of war, there are jokes about slavery, Ebola, blood diamonds, and “those hungry babies with flies on their mouths.” The female characters come mainly in three varieties: invisible, sexualized and well-behaved and whatever their role, women in Zamunda exist purely to entertain, pleasure or support the king and the prince.
This characterization of Africa in general and women, in particular, is typical of how Africa has persistently been depicted on U.S. television, so “Coming 2 America” is certainly not breaking new ground. The 2019 Africa In the Media report conducted by the Norman Lear Center, which analyzed 700,000 hours of U.S. television to see how Africa showed up in U.S. media confirmed this. The report noted that “Even positive references to African culture were often associated with primal sexuality, and frequently mined for laughs.”
Although the movie proves that there’s still a “considerable gap between how Africa is portrayed and how it is,” it set out — like much of Hollywood fare — to entertain rather than educate and in doing so, it took some inspiration from Beyoncé’s “Black Is King,” which went out of its way to source and include creative talent from the continent.
Some of the Zamunda royal family members and their entourage, including Eddie Murphy, wear designs from South African designers Laduma Ngxokolo of Maxhosa and Palesa Mokubung of Mantsho. The film’s soundtrack, Rhythms of Zamunda, features musicians from South Africa, Nigeria, Togo, DRC, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Tanzania and Ivory Coast including Tiwa Savage, DJ Arafat, Prince Kaybee and Diamond Platinumz.
A few things (not much) have changed since the original; one of the lead characters, Mirembe is the only woman in Zamunda who seems to show a rebellious streak. Although forbidden in her country, she runs off to the U.S to have a shot at starting a business. King Akeem, unlike his father, eventually changes outdated laws and vows to promote women’s rights. By the end of the movie, the three princesses go from being at the fate of their gender to saving Zamunda from impending war. This is as good as the movie gets in trying to defy its own stereotypes.
Ultimately, Hollywood will do what it does best, which is to tell stories that the world wants to see, so if Africans want a more contemporary, authentic depiction of the continent, I hope we will all vote with our wallets.
Moky Makura is the executive director of Africa No Filter, which works to bring more progressive, nuanced storylines of Africa to the world.