Craig Brewer is a white filmmaker not unaccustomed to Black-centered stories. Barring his 2000 indie debut, “The Poor & Hungry,” and his 2011 “Footloose” remake, his films predominantly feature African-American protagonists. Brewer based his Memphis-set Southern rap drama “Hustle & Flow” on his friendships with hip-hop artists Al Kapone, Juicy J, and DJ Paul. (John Singleton produced the film.) The blaxploitation-influenced “Black Snake Moan,” whose framed poster features a provocative, menacing Samuel L. Jackson standing over a chained daisy-duke wearing Christina Ricci, peaks from behind Brewer’s shoulder, while hanging on his wall.
Brewer is still riding high from his first Eddie Murphy collaboration — the widely successful “Dolemite Is My Name,” a light-hearted biopic of blaxploitation icon Rudy Ray Moore that garnered the best reviews of the filmmaker’s career while ushering a comeback for Murphy. An ‘80s cinema fanatic, “The Breakfast Club” and “Purple Rain” greatly impacted the Memphis filmmaker, as did John Landis’ 1988 comedy about an African prince from the imagined country of Zamunda traveling to Queens, NY in search of a bride. That was “Coming to America.”
Thirty-three years after its release, with the sequel “Coming 2 America,” Brewer reteams with Murphy to recapture and retool the magic of Landis’ comedy classic. So how did a white guy end up directing the sequel to one of the most treasured Black comedies in decades?
Part of it had to do with Murphy, who hand-picked Brewer for his first stab at a comedy sequel in many years. In “Coming 2 America,” Prince Akeem (Murphy) and his Queens-native wife Lisa (Shari Headley) not only celebrate their 30-year union but also their three warrior daughters: Princesses Tinashe (Akiley Love), Omma (Bella Murphy), and the oldest, Meeka (KiKi Layne). Their fairytale bliss, however, is under threat. Akeem’s father (James Earl Jones) lays near death. And sensing weakness, Nextdoria’s warlord ruler General Izzi (Wesley Snipes) threatens Akeem with destruction if he doesn’t marry Meeka to Izzi’s eldest son. All seems lost until Akeem hears of Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler) — a “bastard son” he accidentally fathered during a drug-addled one-night stand 30 years ago. He and his trusted confidant Semmi (Arsenio Hall) venture back to Queens to recover Lavelle so they might avert war.
Murray reached out to Brewer about the gig after their “Dolemite” experience, and the filmmaker called it “a joyous journey but fraught with peril,” he said in a recent interview with IndieWire over Zoom. Screenwriters Kenya Barris, Barry Blaustein, and David Sheffield join the sequel to fashion silly new jokes for familiar faces like John Amos and Louie Anderson, while looping in recent additions: Leslie Jones, Tracy Morgan, Teyana Taylor, and Nomzamo Mbatha. Gladys Knight sings “Midnight Train to Zamunda.” En Vogue and Salt-N-Pepa collaborate. Even Morgan Freeman appears. “I don’t think anybody anticipated anything as noble and filled with gravitas as Morgan Freeman saying, ‘And now I give you En Vogue,’” Brewer said.
Yet “Coming 2 America” remains an extension of the passion project Murphy first envisioned decades ago. The original arrived following his legendary stand-up special “Raw” at quite possibly the height of his career. Directing Murphy for his return to Zamunda was certainly less daunting after Brewer’s success on “Dolemite Is My Name”: He and Murphy spent a year together developing and filming the Rudy Ray Moore biopic, took the film to TIFF, and then immediately went to work on “Coming 2 America.”
They bonded over their shared affection for the ‘80s, and Brewer’s love of Landis’ original film. “So the trust was definitely established,” Bewer said. Scheduling conflicts — campaigning for “Dolemite” on the awards circuit while looping in cast members from the 1988 film and working in an array of cameos — also beset the sequel.
Along the way, Brewer noticed a change in Murphy, which began during “Dolemite” and translated to “Coming 2 America.” On the Moore biopic, the ensemble cast created a new kind of energy. “There was Mike Epps. Keegan-Michael Key. Craig Robinson. And there was Chris Rock,” Brewer said. “I think he started to really enjoy hanging with friends that he could share stories with, while working at the same time. ’Coming 2 America’ was that way, too. But now it’s Tracy Morgan rolling up with his jam box playing the old school hits, and then you turn around, and there’s Arsenio. He’s in a relaxed place with it.”
Even with a set filled with comedians, the sequel wasn’t a stand-up free-for-all. “As much as people want to believe ‘Delirious’ happens when you make a movie with Eddie Murphy, it’s not that,” Brewer explained. “He’s coming there to work. He’s in the chair; he’s in a zone where he’s playing music and he’s getting into his makeup and his look, and you see his lips moving sometimes because he’s going over stuff. There’s craft there.”
The comedy legend is now older, more mature. For decades, audiences witnessed his growth on the silver screen, and yet as a stand-up comedian he remains trapped in the amber of “Raw.” More recently, Murphy has said that he wants to return to the stage with the wind of new film work behind him.
“I sometimes talk to him about going back to stand-up, how incredible that’s going to be for him,” Brewer said. “The last time we saw him he wasn’t any of these things. He’s been living the life of stardom, but now, he’s a dad like the rest of us. There’s all of this material that he can draw from that everyone will find very relatable.”
Before tackling “Coming 2 America,” Brewer ran into Landis at a memorial for John Singleton. “I told him that he really was one of the reasons I became a filmmaker,” he said. “When ‘Thriller’ came out on MTV — it’s really hard to explain to people today how big that moment was. It was a mini-movie and they also made a making of.’”
A giddy Brewer briefly left the interview to dig out a prized possession, returning with a VHS tape. He proudly held its glossy cover, displaying Michael Jackson in his trademark red leather jacket, surrounded by leering ghouls, close to the webcam. “‘The Making of Michael Jackson’s Thriller.’ This movie was my introduction into filmmaking,” he said. “I was just so into Michael. But then I started seeing this guy, John Landis, and he’s talking about doing makeup with this guy, Rick Baker, and suddenly there’s a new excitement for me.”
The difficult task of following a Landis classic wasn’t the only perilous specter awaiting Brewer. When approaching Black-centered stories, white directors encounter plenty of pitfalls with regards to authenticity. (There’s a fair bit of irony in two white filmmakers helming both installments of “Coming to America.”) Brewer was aware of the potential dangers involved when white filmmakers tackle Black stories. “Anytime someone can bring their authenticity, and they make art about it, even if it’s complex, you can still take comfort in the fact that it’s real to their people, their culture, their history,” he said. “When you have white directors who are doing African-American content, the thing you could fall into is not having a real sense of what is real to people.”
But what of Brewer’s own history with African-American storytelling? “I don’t want to be at odds with the struggle of a lot of African-American filmmakers. But it wasn’t until ‘Dolemite’ that I asked myself, ‘Should I feel bad about doing these?’” he said. “Up until then, I felt kind of good about it. John Singleton was a major mentor to me.”
For years, he felt a natural kinship with the characters in his movies. “I live in Memphis, Tennessee in a predominantly African-American city,” he said. “There’s something about the music I’ve been raised on. There’s something about the movies I’ve always responded to. And there was something about the ‘80s into the ‘90s, where there was a call to Blackness that did not feel as if white appreciation was not welcomed. I couldn’t help it.”
He said he has more recently realized that “it’s time for much more representation.” After “Dolemite,” he started to question whether he should direct other Black projects that came his way, including a Charley Pride movie and a television series about Staxs Records. For now, however, he remains committed to pursuing those longtime passion projects.
“I have to be very honest with myself about why I want to make the movie,” Brewer said. “For me, ‘Dolemite’ was very easy because I lived that life. I know what it’s like to put a ragtag group of people together to make a movie — to come from the South to Hollywood and then make a career for yourself. I just have to be right with my soul. Listen and surround myself with as many people as I can. Build up as many people as I can around me. And if ever I’m doing something wrong, I hope people can tell me.”
“Coming 2 America” is now available on Amazon Prime.