Thirty years after his original journey, Prince Akeem is returning to the United States to find an heir to the throne of Zamunda. That’s right: As Variety reported last week, Paramount is planning a sequel to the 1988 comedy “Coming to America,” with Craig Brewer (“Hustle & Flow”) set to direct. Eddie Murphy will reprise his role as the overly-coddled Zamundan royal who travels to New York to find the woman of his dreams. Fans of the original may be excited to see Murphy return to one of his most beloved roles. While the movie divided critics, it resonated with audiences who were charmed by Murphy’s likable performance, and wound up grossing over $288 million worldwide.
But another dose of this playful fairy tale might have a hard time in the 21st century, facing cultural challenges that would have gone unquestioned three decades ago. Before Brewer and Murphy get the ball rolling on the sequel, which the studio has already slated for an August 2020 release date, they should consider some of the ways in which this material might go very wrong.
“Africa” Is Not a Country
The first film was released at a time when American audiences had very little exposure to the varied realities of life across the African continent. The dangerously incomplete story of “Africa” that permeated the West (and quite frankly still does to some degree), was that of a helpless, homogenous mass of people ravaged by famine, poverty, disease, and war, who lived among wild animals. The most notable embodiment of this perception was the charity single “We Are the World,” recorded by United Support of Artists (USA) for Africa in 1985. Written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, and produced by Quincy Jones, the aim was to raise funds to combat famine in that same vaguely-defined “Africa.”
While certainly well-meaning, the initiative only fed into imperialist, colonialist ideas of Africa — an entire continent of 54 individual nations — which sadly remains a common misperception in the West. “Coming to America” further reflected that disconnect, and its comedy exploited audiences who didn’t know any better.
It was an easy pill to swallow. Even many Africans were entertained and humored by it — although, for them, the amusement was rooted in how ridiculous the premise and the depictions of Africans were, and the stereotypes that the film played upon, compared to their own experiences as Africans in African countries, or in America. Laugh to keep from crying, as the saying goes. I was born in Nigeria, but my family moved to the United States the same year that “Coming to America” was released. The movie created headaches for me: Schoolmates would call me Akeem, and ask stupid questions like if I played with wild animals in my backyard. I can’t imagine that I was the only one.
Thirty years later, American audiences generally have been exposed to more complete and authentic accounts of African life, in part thanks to the global impact of the internet. And the increase in interest in African stories across television and film has also been of influence in increasing familiarity, especially as Africans themselves become even more active in reclaiming their narratives while targeting global audiences.
In recent years, African filmmakers locally and abroad — such as Wanuri Kahiu, Priscilla Anany, Jahmil X.T. Qubeka, and Anthony Onah — have begun to make names for themselves on international screens, bolstered by new government legislation in countries like Nigeria, Ghana and Zimbabwe, that has helped each film industry begin to evolve into dynamic, economically self-sustaining and culturally conscious film industries.
It follows that contemporary depictions of Africans — or any African nation, even if fictional — must not rely on single stories of the past, or risk ridicule and censure, not only by African but also American audiences. For “Black Panther,” Ryan Coogler and his team traveled the African continent to create their version of Wakanda from authentic reference points; similarly, it would serve Brewer, Murphy, and screenwriter Kenya Barris well if they engaged with people on the continent before revisiting Zamunda for a contemporary audience.
The sequel’s depiction of women overall — especially African women — will need to be upgraded from the original.
A year before the release of “Coming to America,” Eddie Murphy featured a routine in his blockbuster stand-up comedy film “Raw” (1987) that revealed Murphy’s own woefully unsophisticated perception of African womanhood. In the performance, he joked about going to “Africa” to find an ignorant “bush bitch” to marry, rather than tolerate what he implied are conniving American women, whom he painted as gold-diggers. That view of African women — regardless of Murphy’s facetious intentions — is an ugly one, presenting them as mute, unintelligent, and hypersexual beings. And it’s not unreasonable to assume that it may have informed his depiction of Zamundan women, as the film suggests.
Implying that women of Zamunda (and by proxy Africa) are primitive and thus ill-equipped to fully engage him, Prince Akeem declares to confidant Semmi (Arsenio Hall): “I want a woman who will arouse my intellect as well as my loins.” He then identifies “America” as the one country in the world where he will find such a woman. Those quotes will certainly come back to haunt him if “Coming to America 2” falls short on the subject of gender.
The team behind the upcoming sequel would be wise to radically rethink how African women — and, frankly, all the female characters — are depicted in the film, while aiming to subvert the general lack of real agency that rendered them mostly shallow in the 1988 original.
Telling African Stories Today
It remains to be seen whether Brewer, Murphy, and Barris can be counted on to handle this sequel with the necessary sensitivity it requires. Not that there isn’t any humor and romance to be found in stories about Africans in America, in Africa, or anywhere else in the world. Brewer and his team should do their homework and check out films from Senegalese Ousmane Sembène’s post-independence social satires “Xala” and “Mandabi,” to Nigerien Rahmatou Keïta’s royal romantic drama “The Wedding Ring,” about a Nigerian princess sent to France to study, where she falls in love with a prince, and more.
But even a sensitive approach to the humor is dicey territory. Is this the right time for an irreverent, flippant and possibly tone-deaf comedy about African identity made by non-Africans? It certainly does no favors to the continent, which faces a new brand of colonialism via China’s growing influence; simultaneously, there has been a surge in demand by globally connected young Africans to gain recognition, while America’s president has used the term “shithole” to describe African nations. All these issues lead to another big question…
Why Not Hire an African Director?
Brewer, who seems to have a penchant for Southern-set titillation and stories about the underclass (aside from his 2011 remake of “Footloose”) is an unexpected choice to helm the sequel. His hiring is likely a result of having developed a strong actor-director bond with Murphy, as the pair worked together on the upcoming biopic of blaxploitation-era star Rudy Ray Moore, “Dolemite Is My Name,” which Netflix will release later this year. But there is no shortage of African filmmakers who could work wonders with a revised take on the “Coming to America” premise.
One possibility might have been “I Am Not a Witch” director Rungano Nyoni, a Zambian filmmaker who has already shown her penchant for satirizing perceptions of modern-day Africa. Nigerian filmmaker Kenneth Gyang, whose acclaimed dark comedy “Confusion Na Wa” won an African Academy Award, is another. And then there’s Congolese filmmaker Djo Tunda Wa Munga, who made the unabashedly commercial thriller “Viva Riva,” which he intended to counter dominant perceptions of African cinema as rudimentary and didactic. “Viva Riva” was the rare African movie released theatrically in the U.S. in 2011.
Of course, it’s hard to deny that no matter its problematic ingredients, “Coming to America” is not without its very funny moments. Most notably, Murphy and Hall demonstrate an uncanny ability to morph into different characters, each playing a minimum of four throughout the film, and sometimes in sequences in which they inhabit multiple characters in the same scene.
But accountability matters. Africans living in America at the time of the first film’s release suffered through countless “Coming to America” jokes — and, for some, the film’s depictions of Africa and Africans only helped further an ignorance that was prevalent at the time. For example, in Zamunda, animals that would be normally found in a zoo are seen casually walking amongst Zamundans, which is not at all the reality for the vast majority of Africans.
A “Coming to America” sequel is arguably 30 years too late, and it’s a bit of a mystery why Murphy and company are revisiting Zamunda now, other than to capitalize on a property and reboot Murphy’s box office potential. But in an environment that’s heavy on reboots of old franchises, “Coming to America 2” is maybe par for the course. Murphy is also reportedly queuing up a fourth “Beverly Hills Cop” movie, and teaming up with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito for a sequel to “Twins,” tentatively titled “Triplets.” No matter the broader representational problems with “Coming to America,” the plans for a sequel may tell us less something about Murphy’s cultural sensitivity than his willingness to repeat the same old routines.