Before Wakanda, there was Zamunda, the fictional African kingdom Eddie Murphy’s Prince Akeem stood to inherit in “Coming to America.” As depicted in John Landis’ hit 1988 comedy, Zamunda was a country untouched by colonialism, where Black culture was celebrated as never before on-screen. In particular, its multifaceted showcase of African fashion, music and dance are exquisite, and throwaway jokes (like the Soul Glo TV spot) remain quotable to this day.
Alas, many critics dismissed the movie as a trite fairy tale at the time, failing to grasp the radical novelty that Zamunda represented to Black audiences. Thirty years later, they wouldn’t dare make the same mistake with “Black Panther,” recognizing that film’s exuberant Afrocentrism as what set it apart from other Marvel movies. But Eddie Murphy got there first, and now, in the golden years of the Golden Child’s career, the comic is cashing in once again (the irony being that “Coming to America” was the $288 million blockbuster that, per “Hollywood accounting,” famously lost money — or so Paramount argued when Art Buchwald sued the studio for his share).
Of course, the world has changed a great deal since Akeem first came to America, but as far as Amazon Studios’ 21st-century sequel is concerned, Zamunda has remained more or less frozen in time — to the extent that half the jokes are simply repeats of beloved gags from the original film. That’s by far the easiest path that Murphy and company could have taken with “Coming 2 America,” and while fans may appreciate that director Craig Brewer (“Dolemite Is My Name”) hasn’t messed with the formula, the movie feels downright lazy on the heels of, say, the take-no-prisoners satire of “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” which Amazon released last year.
As the film opens, King Jaffe Joffer (the great James Earl Jones) is still supreme ruler of Zamunda, though not for long. Sensing that the end is near, the king tries to ensure a successful transfer of power to his son Akeem under the country’s old-school patrilineal system. The problem: Akeem and wife Lisa (Shari Headley) have three daughters but no male heir — or so they thought.
A new character named Baba (Arsenio Hall, disguised to look like a haggard voodoo priestess) shares a vision, in which we learn that a forgotten tryst during Akeem’s long-ago trip to New York left behind an illegitimate son. Now, if only he and best friend Simmi (Hall) can locate Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler) — which will require another trip to Queens, N.Y., obviously — they should be able to prevent Zamunda from falling into the hands of General Izzi (Wesley Snipes), despotic warlord of neighboring Nexdoria.
This time, Akeem doesn’t come to America for long, which is too bad, since the earlier film’s most entertaining scenes were the ones in which the pampered African ruler seemed to find some kind of bohemian charm in egregious social injustices — a sly way of pointing out such an advanced country’s glaring race and class disparities. There ought to be enormous potential in how a post-Obama America appears to Akeem, although his visit is brisk and disappointingly superficial.
For the most part, “Coming 2 America” falls back on familiar punchlines, serving up nearly word-for-word repeats of amusing bits from the original, but they don’t necessarily play the same in this context: Take McDowell’s (the movie’s ghetto McDonald’s knockoff) out of Queens, and the underlying parody loses its relevance — although it is amusing to see a Black “Ronald McDowell” mascot at the Zamundan joint. The sequel’s sensibility has evolved so little that musical numbers by En Vogue and Gladys Knight transport audiences back to the late ’80s, when a movie like “Working Girl” represented the cutting edge of gender politics.
Had Akeem stayed in Zamunda, he would have been obliged to submit to an arranged marriage. His idea of a progressive response at the time was “I want a woman that’s going to arouse my intellect as well as my loins!” Looking back, the treatment of women was one area where “Coming to America” can seem particularly cringe-worthy, and the sequel’s overdue efforts to establish equity between the sexes hardly feel earth-shattering.
That said, Leslie Jones (who plays Lavelle’s outspoken mother, Mary) makes her presence felt in a way that the movie’s other largely one-dimensional women don’t dare, wresting some of the more retrograde gags away from the boys (as when she gets her own “royal bather” scene). Fowler is likable, but a far less compelling leading man than Murphy was, and the whole picture starts to feel awfully crowded once the script starts inventing excuses to revisit scene-stealing side characters.
Moviegoers didn’t realize it at the time, but the original “Coming to America” marked the beginning of a game-changing collaboration between Murphy and makeup artist Rick Baker that would later make the full-body transformations of “The Nutty Professor” and “Norbit” possible. Baker had innovated the creature effects for Landis’ “An American Werewolf in London,” and the director brought him on to do the prosthetics that would allow Murphy and Hall to disappear into half a dozen loony cameos — many of whom audiences didn’t recognize until the end credits.
Baker has since retired, but the shtick lives on, as “Coming 2 America” revives each and every one of those alter egos, from the My-T Sharp barbershop trio (Clarence, Morris and whiteface Jewish regular Saul) to Jheri-curled Sexual Chocolate lead singer Randy Watson. Today, visual effects add another tool to Murphy’s arsenal, allowing him and Hall to go back and play themselves at a younger age in CG-enhanced flashbacks that look convincing enough via streaming (the way Amazon is releasing the film), but might not have held up on the big screen.
In Siskel and Ebert’s 1988 review of the original, the two critics debated whether Murphy had lost his edge in this role, and sure enough, “Coming to America” marked another turning point for a standup associated with his hard-R sense of humor (“Raw” came out the year before): The movie represented a far-milder Murphy than audiences had seen. These days, the comedian’s perhaps better known for family fare like “Dr. Dolittle” and “Shrek,” and Amazon has diluted the “Coming to America” franchise just enough to clear a PG-13 rating — although perhaps it’s the MPAA that’s changed, letting a tasteless ritual circumcision sequence slide.
But it’s the relatively good-taste elements that have made “Coming to America” a classic. The costumes alone are to die for (“Black Panther” designer Ruth E. Carter took over sartorial duties from Oscar nominee Deborah Nadoolman, adding amusing details, like Puma logos, to her stunning dashikis), and suggest that the below-the-line departments recognize what Brewer and the screenwriters did not — namely, that it’s the African side of “Coming 2 America” that resonates with audiences. While fans have spent decades dreaming of Zamunda, the play-it-safe sequel risks diminishing what this fantasy kingdom represents.