You may wonder if there is only one white person in Coming 2 America’s cast, if the movie is for you. Well, hopefully you don’t wonder, but revel in a rare example, even in 2021, of a film that centers Black performers. Hopefully you have already read reviews on this new release from Black film journalists. If you haven’t, you should, though you’ll have to look to the 3rd page of Rotten Tomato reviews before you find a Black film critic, despite the inclusion initiatives RT put in place several years ago. As a fan of the 1988 comedy, I’ll still offer my opinions on the sequel. Silly, sweet, and full of powerful Black female characters who are neither beholden to, nor second fiddle to some blonde, white lead. Coming 2 America is more a vehicle for the female actors than for stars Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall. It is also unabashedly made for fans of the original cult classic.
Zamunda gets a new king early in Coming 2 America. Akeem (Eddie Murphy) takes on the throne with Queen Lisa (Shari Headly) by his side, with his three highly accomplished daughters looking on. Unfortunately, Zamunda must have a male heir, as we are informed by General Izzi (Wesley Snipes), who is waiting in the wings to take over the country. Surprise! A forgotten pre-Lisa indiscretion in Queens has gleaned a heretofore unknown 30 year old son named Lavelle Junson (played by multi-hyphenate Jermaine Fowler). Off Akeem and his pal Semmi (Hall) go, back to Queens, to drag his progeny and mom Mary (Leslie Jones) back to Zamunda to be groomed as future king.
It’s obvious in 2021 that there’s no way they’ll keep to the rule of requiring a male heir, right? Especially when the women in Akeem’s life are brilliant, talented, and are so highly skilled as warriors they can kick anyone unconscious. What about the palace hair stylist who dreams of opening her own shop? It seems clear early on that the strong female presence in Coming 2 America will be eclipsing the men in the story, and it’s unlikely that anyone will have a problem with that. Fowler as would-be prince is the most fleshed out male character, but his issues and plot lines still aren’t as interesting as those of the women.
Speaking of male characters, why does Eddie Murphy remain so reserved and controlled throughout the film? Viewers will find themselves missing more of an emotional arc for his character this time around. Also, why don’t we see more of Arsenio Hall, and learn about how he’s changed and advanced as a person in the last 30 years? On the other hand, Tracy Morgan as Lavelle’s Uncle Reem represents a loving and very committed role in his nephew’s life.
Of all the aspects of the film that might make it worthy of your attention, none is remotely as compelling as Oscar-winning designer Ruth E Carter’s massive collection of costumes. I remember speaking to her while she was in the early stages of constructing the film’s look, and she said it was the most challenging film she’d ever worked on. In her second project with director Craig Brewer after Dolemite is My Name, Carter collaborated with 39 designers from across the world, combining a wide variety of cultures to create uniquely Zamundan fashion. She didn’t want to create clothing that echoed her work on Black Panther, so for Coming 2 America, there’s still the Afro-futuristic element, but on the whole, it’s less technology and more fairy tale.
A lot has changed and much hasn’t since Eddie Murphy’s 1988 vehicle Coming To America landed in theaters. This year’s Golden Globes completely shut out the critically acclaimed Da 5 Bloods, as well as limiting nominations from stories by filmmakers of color about the Black experience, like Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, One Night in Miami and Jesus and the Black Messiah. It has only been a handful of years since #OscarsSoBlack called on The Academy of Motion Picture Sciences to work towards a more diverse membership. Regardless of the fact that Coming 2 America takes few chances, relying on love of the original to appeal to and retain audiences through its running time, we must not only allow for but hope for the success of a film so supportive of Black artists. If the Transformers franchise can make a billion dollars, certainly this movie deserves the same chance.
You’ll come to Coming 2 America for Eddie and Arsenio, but you’ll stay for KiKi Layne, Monzamo Mbatha, Shari Headley and Leslie Jones, as well as Carter’s spectacular costumes celebrating the African diaspora. They are so complex and detailed, you’ll never see all her masterwork in one viewing. One day someone will do a Master’s thesis on the collection, and honestly, I can’t give this film a rotten review with artistry from such a costuming genius. Lastly, if you watch the film for no other reason than to hear John Legend beautiful falsetto singing a satirical song during the end credits, that’d be ok.
3 out of 5 stars