For all that being the daughter of an African immigrant means to me, I have disturbingly few cultural touchstones from my mother’s homeland. She’s Nigerian, so I am well-aware of Nollywood, even if I haven’t watched a film. I’ve smelled, and turned down, bowls of egusi soup. I regularly bash Marvel (including in Slate) for its inability to have its characters properly pronounce “Lagos,” the name of Nigeria’s biggest city and arguably the most populous in Africa. (Say it with me again: LAY-gus. It’s really not hard!)
But otherwise, I’m American, born and raised. I love pizza and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and music by sad white girls. None of these resonate with my mother as they do me, even if she’s lived in the United States since 1980—longer than she ever lived in Nigeria. All of which helps explain why my mother and I had very different feelings about Coming to America when I was growing up.
Take the movie’s opening scenes, which are set in the fictional African state of Zamunda. We see little of the country outside of the palace that Prince Akeem (Eddie Murphy, all enthusiasm and wide, buck-toothed smile) yearns to break free from. Instead, we’re introduced to the royal palace, where Akeem is trapped in a gilded cage, waited on hand and foot (not to mention his “royal penis”) by a trail of female servants scattering flower petals in his wake. It’s all comic, even fantastical opulence, setting the stage for the riches-to-rags (and back), fish-out-of-water journey that is at the movie’s core. But to my mother, already, there was something more insidious to this central joke: The problem wasn’t that these rich people are ridiculous, or that Akeem is a spoiled rich boy who doesn’t understand how those American poors live—it is after all a universal truth that every nation and continent have their share of out-of-touch rich people. The problem is that part of the humor is supposed to derive from the fact that these rich people are African—because perish the thought that an African could actually be well-off, especially compared with an American.
And then comes that big dance sequence at the betrothal, where Akeem finally meets the bride that his family has arranged for him to marry. A parade of svelte, sandal-footed men and women march into the throne room, shaking their grass skirts and feather headdresses. Their clothes are barely there, and it’s always a surprise that we don’t see anyone’s private parts flop out as they dance with a possessed intensity. It’s a beautiful performance, but one that does little to dispel ideas that the country’s nonroyals—the average people—are anything more than “primitives” who roam the savannah in loincloths and face paint. (It may be worth noting that the outfits were by director John Landis’ wife, the accomplished, white costume designer Deborah Nadoolman Landis, while the dance was choreographed by Paula Abdul.)
If my mom was in the room and we were watching this movie, and she had managed to make it this far, this was usually when she would tap out. I loved Coming to America as a kid, finding Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall so funny and the love story between Akeem and his American “Queen,” fast food heiress Lisa, so cute, but my mother resented it. It wasn’t that she “didn’t get” the jokes, like with Ferris Bueller; it was that, to her, this movie was blatantly offensive. “The accents sound like they’re trying to be bad South Africans!” she would jeer. “And what are these outfits?” It’s supposed to be funny, Mom, we’d argue. Chill out, man. But no, Mom would not “chill out, man”—because with so little American media focused on Africa, for this to be the persistent representation not only didn’t sit well. It infuriated her.
I was negative-5 years old when Coming to America came out; in 1988, my mom had been here nearly a decade, and in New York, too, where the movie is set. “We all kind of said, ‘OK, this is meant to be tongue-in-cheek,’ ” she recently told me, “but what my friends and I found offensive was that people who didn’t know better probably thought this was the real deal.” Thirty-three years later, with the sequel about to come out, it seems less likely that anyone could mistake Zamunda for a realistic depiction of any African nation. After all, the Coming to America movies are no longer even the most prominent depiction of a fictional African nation. “But at least Wakanda was positive,” she continued. “With the Eddie Murphy one, it was patronizing.” So before rewatching the original for the first time in years, I had to wonder whether it would seem so defensible to me now, or whether it would come across as every bit as dated as a head full of Soul Glo Jheri curls.
One reason for this is that I’m now a lot more in touch with my own African roots. I still couldn’t tell you a single Nigerian food that I like, and I know barely a word of my mom’s family’s ancestral language, Igbo. But I have been to the country once, nearly 20 years ago now, and I have come to appreciate that experience—and my mother’s having grown up there—much more now that I’m older. Africa is a hugely diverse place, impossible to stereotype; I couldn’t tell you what Zamunda is meant to be inspired by, because it doesn’t resemble any African nation I can think of. No, the African nation I can recall, Nigeria, is one where some wealthy people live in giant, gated mansions, while others do live in smaller, flatter homes. My aunt is an entrepreneur with tons of Chinese food restaurants. My younger cousins love Instagram and TikTok and high fashion and Tumblr and social justice Twitter. Traffic is terrible in Lagos. There are no elephants strolling about like the ones on Akeem’s estate. The languages and the accents vary wildly.
That said, as the title suggests, Coming to America is most concerned not with Africa but with America, and this helps it hold up somewhat better than those early scenes might suggest. Not that some of these scenes don’t also make me uncomfortable. My mom, unlike Akeem, was not a know-nothing blowing her money and trying to fit in by pretending to be working class. She came here to go to a top university, shop a whole lot, and make friends from all over the world. So as much as I love to see an African portrayed as wealthy and respected, it does also chafe to watch Akeem be so blissfully ignorant, as if he were like Will Ferrell’s Buddy in Elf, fresh from the North Pole. That is far from the case with most immigrants coming to this country, especially those as rich as Akeem.
“Who cares, though,” I was tempted to tell myself. “It’s a comedy!” Akeem’s ignorance is the joke and, for most of its run time, the movie’s real target—the truly backward nation, the place where we see millions of Black people forced into poverty—is the United States. And at the end of the day, it still frames an African nation as a place you’d want to go back to, live in, enjoy the riches of. It beats mopping the floors at McDowell’s.
But if Coming to America’s problems lie mostly in its depiction of Africa, its sequel exacerbates those flaws by setting the bulk of its action not in America but in Zamunda. And while we might have all grown more enlightened in the three decades since the original film was made, Zamunda, it turns out, hasn’t changed at all. Though Akeem, at the end of the original film, succeeded in overthrowing Zamunda’s traditional system of arranged marriage in favor of finding a more equitable partnership with his American queen, that was apparently the last reform he (and Lisa) ever encouraged. The rest of the country’s ideals are as patriarchal (literally) as ever: Akeem must have a male heir, because in Zamunda, women aren’t even allowed to run businesses, let alone nations.
The movie is of course setting this up as just another stodgy tradition for Akeem to overcome (however belatedly), but the premise still plays into stereotypes about Africa being behind the times, and the movie doesn’t get much more thoughtful from there. As the dad of three daughters, Akeem seems to think he’s out of luck, but we are soon informed that, during the trip to America depicted in the original film, Akeem was drugged by a woman (played by Leslie Jones) who he and Semmi (Arsenio Hall) invited back with them from the bar—a woman who then proceeded to have sex with the prince and become pregnant with his son. That this scene depicts a pretty clear-cut date rape (Akeem doesn’t remember any of this, except that he encountered a “boar”) while playing it for laughs is one of the movie’s first and most harrowing choices. Still, as regrettable as this nonconsensual retcon may be, it is at least not an indictment of Africans writ large.
But the trip to America is brief, and Akeem and co. quickly return to Zamunda, the prince’s newfound son, Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler), in tow. The reason for the haste is that Akeem almost literally has a gun to his head, and the man holding the gun is General Izzi (Wesley Snipes), another of the movie’s more questionable creations. The backstory is that Izzi has threatened to make war with Zamunda if Akeem does not wed a son to the general’s daughter and forge a peace. But as much as Snipes appears to be enjoying the role, his character is a depressingly familiar figure from Western media and headlines: He’s a murderous warlord, one who outfits child soldiers with guns almost too large for them to carry. One of the lone flourishes is that he trains them using the arcade version of Dance Dance Revolution, but the underlying subject is about as funny as what happens to Akeem on that night he can’t remember.
Izzi’s nation, meanwhile, is so self-consciously underbaked (its name is Nextdoria) that it has no other traits for me to discuss, and the movie’s treatment of Zamunda isn’t much better. Now that we have to spend the next 70 minutes of the movie properly hanging out in the country, there is some responsibility to actually give it character, but instead, the “joke” is that the country Akeem loves so much is as generic as every other Western take on Africa. This, too, seems to be self-conscious: The movie underlines it through repeated references to The Lion King, from the movie’s opening shot, which sweeps over a herd of antelope in an echo of the Disney classic, to multiple characters being called Mufasa. Indeed, those aren’t even the only references to lions. In one of the trials Lavelle must undertake to become prince, he must pluck the whiskers from one of the beasts—because apparently the royals are under constant threat from jungle creatures? In this context, even the scenes that attempt to subvert African stereotypes only do so while reiterating them in the process. Lavelle’s final trial, he is told, is that he must undergo a ceremonial circumcision, via machete—a possible grotesque reference to the Western reputation of some African nations as places with abundant female genital mutilation. It’s ultimately a bait-and-switch: It turns out to be a sort of practical joke, and Lavelle’s royal foreskin is safe. (A potato is ceremonially sliced instead.) But if the movie occasionally weaponizes American viewers’ own misconceptions about Africa against them, it doesn’t offer anything with which to replace them.
This is all not to say that the movie is without any merit. With Black Panther’s costume designer Ruth Carter on hand this time to craft the costumes, at least scenes like this movie’s dance performance (starring the ever-watchable Teyana Taylor) are marvelous to look at. The African aristocrats are dressed beautifully, with robes and gowns that lend credence to their commanding presences. But these trappings can only do so much to dress up the lackadaisical Africana underneath.
In 2021, is it too much to ask a movie based in Africa to pay some attention to its setting? The movie dutifully repeats its 1980s predecessor beat for beat, which is a whole other issue, but for as much time as it spends on the African continent, we might have hoped that this was one domain where it could have brought some fresh ideas. Instead, this time, I’ll be complaining to my mom about the movie before she can beat me to it.