‘There is no Wakanda without Zamunda’: Why ‘Coming to America’ broke new ground for diversity in Hollywood

The sequel to the Eddie Murphy classic is set to premiere on Amazon Prime

Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall in 'Coming to America'. Courtesy Paramount Pictures
Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall in 'Coming to America'. Courtesy Paramount Pictures

When Coming to America released in 1988, the film was a project tailor-made for Eddie Murphy.

With his career riding high with back-to-back box office hits 48 Hrs (1982), Trading Places (1983) and 1984’s Beverly Hills Cop, Murphy wanted to move away from fast talking, streetwise characters and looked to recast himself as a romantic leading man.

This is where Coming to America comes in. Set in the fictional African kingdom of Zamunda, Murphy starred as Prince Akeem Joffer. In order to evade an arranged marriage, he leaves the opulence of the palace and travels to the gritty streets of New York City to search for his true love.

The film was both a commercial hit in the box office and a cultural breakthrough for Hollywood. At the time, rarely did a high-budget film feature an all-black leading cast.

Promoting the anticipated sequel Coming 2 America, available on Amazon Prime on Friday, Murphy hails the first instalment as groundbreaking because it challenged the film industry’s and viewers’ general perceptions with a light touch.

"Coming to America is an all-black cast, but the movie is not about race," he said.

"It’s about somebody that’s trying to find true love. It’s like a fantasy, like a fairytale. And that’s the legacy of the movie that it’s one of the few romantic fairy tales with black people. I think that’s why we love it."

That said, there is no denying the impact of Coming to America both on and off the screen.

In addition to launching a bunch of celebrated film careers and cementing Murphy as a box office king, the film’s cultural significance is only beginning to be appreciated in recent years.

Here are five reasons why the film remains influential.

1. Zamunda is the original Wakanda

Its portrayal of dignified African royalty helped de-exotify Hollywood’s treatment of the continent, which at the time frequently served as an evocative backdrop for lush melodramas and adventure films such as 1985’s Out of Africa and 1988’s Gorillas in the Mist .

Coming to America allowed filmmakers, actors and writers to think bigger when it came to black representation on screen.

To put it simply: there would have been no Wakanda without Zamunda. The sheer majesty of the former, the fictional African country setting for blockbuster film Black Panther, could not have been fully imagined if it wasn’t for Zamunda's royal grounds and serene society acting as a reference point.

2. An all-black cast works in the box office

Coming to America showed Hollywood that an all-black cast was commercially feasible. This was further exemplified in the success of Ice Cube’s Friday and Barbershop films franchises, Tyler Perry’s films featuring Aunt Madea and both instalments of Kevin Hart’s Think Like A Man.

3. The first movie where Murphy played several roles

While Murphy often played several roles simultaneously as a cast member of television comedy sketch show Saturday Night Live from 1980 to 1984, Coming to America was the first time he brought that approach to the big screen.

In what was hailed as a bravura performance, Murphy plays no less than four characters in the film.

In addition to the main role of Prince Akeem Joffer, Murphy donned a shiny suit and long hair for washed up soul singer Randy Watson; went semi bald and spoke with a scratchy high pitch for cantankerous barber Clarence, and plays Saul, a friend of Clarence and the only white patron of his barber shop.

Murphy's performances were a revelation and he went on to perform several roles in future films such as 1995's Vampire In Brooklyn (three), 1996's The Nutty Professor (six), 1999's Bowfinger (two) and 2007’s Norbit (three).

4. It has memorable dialogue

A sure sign of a classic film is when it’s full of quotable lines. Coming to America is generous in that nearly all of the main characters get a chance to shine with hilarious quips.

A favourite scene finds Prince Akeem bemoaning to his father King Jaffe Joffer (played by James Earl Jones) that he is "a man who has never tied his own shoes before".

In reply, the king chides him by stating: "Wrong! You are a Prince who has never tied his shoes. Believe me. I tied my own shoes once. It is an overrated experience”.

5. The film helped to launch several careers

Look closely in certain scenes and at the end credits and you will recognise names in the early stages of their career.

The film marked the debut screen appearance of Oscar winner Cuba Gooding Jr. He plays a customer in the barbershop.

Eriq La Salle, who plays Murphy's nemesis Daryl Jenkins, would go on to star in nine seasons of hit drama ER.

At the time, struggling actor Samuel L Jackson's career found more prominence after his particularly fiery scene where he plays an unsuccessful bank robber.

American Idol judge and pop singer Paula Abdul also choreographed the lavish Zamunda palace dance sequence performed in the early stages of the film.

Updated: March 4, 2021 04:05 PM

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