Coming to America starts off like a National Geographic special: as the opening credits roll, the camera glides through vistas of palm trees, lush forests, and thriving wildlife before coming to rest on a palace that, with its blue turrets and sprawling lawn, seems to have been ripped out of the pages of a Disney fairy tale. Yet in this fictional African land of Zamunda, Prince Akeem (Eddie Murphy), is disgruntled with his privileged life and the prospect of an arranged marriage. With the companionship of his sidekick Semmi (Arsenio Hall), he decides to travel to Queens, New York to find a wife who will love him, not his status as future King.
The story, admittedly, is not anything we haven’t seen before; the rich boy, poor girl formula has been used all too often. However, it’s easy to forgive the unoriginality, as romantic comedy is rarely a genre that allows for groundbreaking novelty anyway. What is new is Eddie Murphy’s performance, markedly more subtle than his past outrageousness in Beverly Hills Cop or on Saturday Night Live. Here, he barely uses profane language or rowdy behavior; well-spoken and courteous, he’s the perfect gentleman, whether it's calmly standing up to the robber who holds up McDowell’s or stopping on the street to give money to homeless men. Actually, the film might even be read as a metaphor for his career—just as Prince Akeem yearns to break away from his life in Zamunda, so too does Murphy want to separate himself from previous roles as the rough, gangster-type. Being Akeem is a chance for him to assert both his broader range as an actor as well as his refusal to comply with the narrow parameters for African American characters in Hollywood.
Even more striking is the fact that this is one of the few times that a film revolved around the love story between two positive black characters (remember, we’re talking about the 1980s here!). The childlike enthusiasm with which Akeem introduces himself to Lisa (Shari Headley), dancing in the restaurant during their first date—their relationship is sweet and genuine. Particularly heartfelt is their conversation about love and marriage after Lisa refuses to marry her despicable boyfriend, Darryl (Eriq LaSalle)*. The interaction between them makes it easy for us to see them as a “normal” couple—as opposed to alternatives offered at the time—and therefore root for their relationship to succeed.
While the romance may be charming, and while Eddie Murphy may be unusually tame as the innocent and well-mannered prince, almost everything else about the film is far from subdued. As the opening credits described above suggest, we seem to be alerted from the beginning that what we are about to watch is unashamedly tongue-in-cheek. A satirical undertone is present almost throughout, from the exaggeratedly long dining table at which Akeem and his parents sit on opposite ends and the exotic African animals randomly running across the frame, to the curse-filled shouts of angry New Yorkers and the not-so-subtle spoof on McDonald’s. Additionally, Murphy and Hall indulge in their specialty of embodying multiple roles, particularly as the various kooky employees of the local barber shop. As entertaining as they are, most of these elements contribute little to the narrative: the barbers don’t do much for the progression of the plot, and neither, for instance, do Hall’s over-the-top antics as the rowdy Reverend Brown. Consequently, it often feels like the entire film is an extension of Murphy’s stand-up routines, fragmented into short sketches that don’t necessarily have any purpose besides comic effect.
So while Coming to America, as a different depiction of African Americans in cinema, may have had the potential to make more of a social impact, perhaps the disjointed and sometimes crude humor prevents it from being taken too seriously. However, it may be because of this mix of romance and comedy that the film has appealed to both fans of such humor as well as those seeking more of a love story. For all the contradicting opinions among critics and audiences about its political and social statements, we can’t deny that this movie is funny—and if nothing else, undoubtedly fulfills Murphy’s eternal goal of wanting to make people laugh.
*This is irrelevant, but am I the only one who still can't think of him as anyone but Dr. Benton on ER?