How Hollywood portrayed African parallels in Eddie Murphy’s much-anticipated film Coming 2 America.

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Prince Akeem sitting on the throne in Zamunda. Credit: Collider

Eddie Murphy’s 1988 film Coming to America set the bar for African films within Western cinema. But as the sequel Coming 2 America was released earlier in 2021, audiences are left asking how much has Western cinema really changed in that time?

The original movie Coming to America was in its own way revolutionary. Despite it being a romantic comedy which poked jokes at Prince Akeem’s marriage troubles, the film set a standard towards African representation in Hollywood at that time. Prince Akeem’s fictional African nation Zamunda was a wealthy African country entirely independent of the West.

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Prince Akeem’s palace in Zamunda Credit: House Beautiful

Murphy, in his film, was adamant about portraying Africans in a good light; rich, equal to white people and proud of their homeland. Murphy’s cast was predominantly African American, including black talent such as Arsenio Hall and Eriq La Salle alongside film stars James Earl Jones and John Amos.

The film changed the narrative of Western cinema, which has a long and ongoing history of pushing Africans to the backbench, even in films about Africa. With the continent often used as a setting for white characters’ story of self-discovery or path of moral reckoning.

The film, in its representation, was so successful that it grossed $288-350 million worldwide from a budget of only $36 million.  Gabrielle Tesfaye, a US director of Ethiopian and Jamaican heritage, told BBC Culture, “It [was] the highest-grossing [black] film because black people are craving that representation. They want to see themselves more than just working on a plantation. And they also want to see themselves within an imagined state of being that is also connected to truth.”

With the popularity of the first film, fans welcomed the news of a second instalment. The sequel Coming 2 America almost doubled the original film’s budget at $60 million, including more celebrity cameos and a modern setting depicting New York today. But what was meant to appeal to a younger audience left many fans feeling disconnected from the original film.

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1988 Coming To America vs 2021 Credit: POPSUGAR

Writers Kenya Barris (a new addition), Barry W Blaustein, and David Sheffield tried to give Zamunda more depth, adding details of African society and how it is governed. However, these details drift from the empowered Zamunda of the last film, this time conveying the kingdom as a regressive one, where women can’t own businesses, and male-only royalty is obligatory.

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African Continent Credit: Pinterest – Fine Art America

Lindiwe Dovey, professor of film at SOAS University of London, said to the BBC, “It sounds as though Zamunda could come to stand in for ‘Africa’ as a homogenous entity. And I worry that such ideas will simply translate into the re-confirmation of stereotypes about the African continent that aren’t true.” 

The film, Coming 2 America tries to feed into the comedic side of culture and representation. However, the film seems to fall back on this quite a bit through depicting both Africans and black Americans in an almost offensive stereotypical light.

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Lavelle and his mother Mary (Leslie Jones) in traditional Zamunda dress Credit: Quantrell D Colbert/Amazon Studios

The film almost goes backwards in its depiction of how working-class black Americans engage in cultures beyond their own. For example, the characters Lavelle and his family, especially his mother, Mary (Leslie Jones), and uncle, Reem (Tracy Morgan), often use slang in their speech, conveyed as being louder and more inappropriate in their actions than the wealthier characters.

Even the culture of black Africans is used as comedic fodder with Prince Akeem’s long lost son Lavelle having to secure a tooth from a lion to prove that he’s worthy of the throne. In addition to Arsenio Hall, who plays witch doctor Baba, Akeem’s royal spiritual advisor, who has long grey dreads and walks around with a tall stick that seems to summon his psychic powers.

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Prince Akeem’s witch doctor Baba using his psychic powers to test Lavelle Credit: Showbiz Cheat Sheet

All in all, despite the excitement, sequels often remain a tough sell for audiences who place the same expectations of the first film onto the second instalment. Even if the second film had landed perfectly, Coming To America was always going to be a tough act to follow due to its built-in audience. The film, trying to be funny in its representation of both Black Africans and African Americans, completely missed the mark, appearing as ignorant to its audience who had more contemporary expectations of Black culture and representation.