Directed by John Landis; Written by David Sheffield and Barry W. Blaustein
As goofy and lighthearted Coming To America is, there’s a heady power to a film about black royalty treated like demigods in their own country and navigating big city America without fear or apprehension.
Eddie Murphy is Prince Akeem, heir to the throne in the fictional African kingdom of Zamunda. Poised, eloquent, adept at hand-to-hand combat, he’s also spoiled and pampered beyond belief, as he’s awoken by a live orchestra every morning, walks on rose petals, and bathed by three women each morning. We meet him on his 21st birthday, and his wedding day, but on this day of all days, he doubts whether he wants to follow tradition, and be set up with a woman whose sole purpose in life is to serve him. He wants someone who’ll want him just for him, you see.
So he flies to New York City, to Queens, to look for his bride-to-be, taking his right hand man Semmi (Arsenio Hall) with him, and shedding all his finery to live the life of an ordinary American man, which translates to living in squalor and taking a custodial job at the local fast food joint. Started from the top now we’re here.
Yes, it’s a comedy, and it doesn’t aim to be a deep treatise on systemic injustice predicated on race, police brutality, economic inequality, or internalized racism, but to not recognize the statement made by having its main character be completely blind to the circumstances that often prey on people who share his skin color is to not watch the film at all. Akeem takes in poverty, hardship and threat of violence with the same wide arms and smile, self-possessed and above it all.
Coming To America has scenes that advance the plot and some that don’t, but they all act as the platform for both Murphy and Hall to roll out their comedic arsenal of delivery, timing and caricature, filling out the tertiary character list by themselves, whether it’s Murphy as the barbershop oldheads or a deluded soul singer, or Hall dressing up in drag in a sequence where the two men navigate the Queens dating scene. The grind was real back then too, don’t let the dating app haters fool you.
What’s the true joy in Coming to America is its embrace of color, which should never be taken for granted now that we’re living through the greyscale century of film that David Fincher brought about.
An African palace bursting at the seams with nature’s full color palette is perhaps to be expected, but even mid-winter New York has flair, as the fast food restaurant Akeem and Semmi work at, a running gag in how it’s a poorly hid McDonald’s knock-off, outfits them with Scottish tartan under the slightly less-golden arches.
The same indulgence that lets Murphy and Hall riff on their characters shines elsewhere too. Akeem’s prospective bride is introduced after a lengthy choreographed song-and-dance number involving dozens of dancers to not mention the crowd watching, and had Coming to America been shot twenty years later, we’d have gotten maybe 20 seconds of this tops, and Coming to America isn’t even a musical. It just has it to spare.
As you can see, Coming To America isn’t short on ideas, gags, comedy and setups, although it does run out of energy at the very end for some unfathomable reason, and while I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say so, this is me giving you a chance to look away before getting to it, but the film does provide an all-time great unexplained and unearned resolution, merely shrugging its shoulders as it pulls the curtains closed. But all’s well that ends well, right?