starring Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall, Jermaine Fowler, Wesley Snipes
screenplay by Kenya Barris and Barry W. Blaustein & David Sheffield
directed by Craig Brewer
by Walter Chaw I don't understand Craig Brewer's Coming 2 America, probably because I don't understand John Landis's Coming to America, either. For me, they are both artifacts of an alien culture where the references are obscure and the humour is arcane. I spent most of my life thinking the first film was making fun of Africans, only to learn that for a generation of Black creatives, the film was a rare example of positive, even admiring, representation of Africans in the American popular culture. I think that's true; I also know the fish-out-of-water machinations of Coming to America's plot--the cheap sex jokes, the gay terror, the burlesque of it--rubbed me the wrong way then and still do. But there's a sweetness to Akeem (Eddie Murphy), isn't there? These films are decidedly not for me. I do trust people with vital voices like Ryan Coogler, who apparently loved the first film and had his own ideas about a sequel--and I would say the analogue I can find while I'm grasping for one is the reception of Short Round in Temple of Doom, which I initially rejected with horror but now embrace as one of the few positive Asian representations in that same American popular culture. Strange bedfellows, Shorty and Prince Akeem, but there you have it.
Coming 2 America--directed, like the first film, by a white guy--is the further adventures of Akeem, prince of fictional African nation Zamunda, as he faces the impending death of his father (James Earl Jones) and a challenge from neighbouring warlord General Izzi (Wesley Snipes), who, because Akeem has not sired any male heirs, is threatening to invade. The reductiveness of the Izzi character (his cartoon army training with "Dance Dance Revolution" machines and marching in formation like a heavily-armed drumline, his notions of masculinity and hereditary rights), I guess I'm baffled as to how this is still a celebration of a kind of Black Panther afro-exceptionalism narrative. The need to prove one's manhood through ritual lion-whisker trimming and adult circumcision, too, even played as off-colour gross-out gags, seems the kind of thing people manufacture to mock African cultures, not hold them up.
The plot, such as it is, involves the discovery of a male heir, Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler), the bastard son of Akeem's visit to the United States, fostered through Akeem being raped by club girl Mary (Leslie Jones) one night after she drugged him. Akeem flies Lavelle and Mary back to Zamunda to prepare Lavelle to marry Izzi's daughter, Bopoto (Teyana Taylor), thus creating harmony between Zamunda and General Izzi's Nexdoria. "Nexdoria," get it? I don't, not entirely: the punchline is either that you shouldn't take any of it all that seriously, or that Africans name their countries stupid things. I suppose I should admit I also don't get the running gag about how the women of Zamunda are so docile and obedient they will bark like a dog if you tell them to. Vanessa Bell Calloway reprises her role as Imani, the woman once betrothed to Akeem; by the time of this sequel, she's been barking for some thirty-plus years--the audience volunteer at the hypnotist's show who never got the message to snap out of it. I was uncomfortable with this when I was 15. I'm uncomfortable with it now, too.
I'm no less ill at ease with the "royal bath" sequences, in which harems of bathing beauties service Lavelle. Mary gets a guy cleaning her "royal privates" as well, but why just the one? I know, I'm overthinking this, just enjoy the hijinks and accept that what you don't understand is not for you. Fair enough. Coming 2 America is more "Coming to Africa," as the fish-out-of-water stuff this time around is Lavelle figuring out that being a secret prince is tougher than it looks and flying in his Uncle Reem (Tracy Morgan) to function as a mentor, allowing Lavelle to keep his "Queens" in the process of becoming the next king. There are two sequences here I genuinely loved: the first is at a funeral where the actual Gladys Knight sings "Midnight Train to Georgia," while the second is a kind of courtship where a bangin' cover of Prince's "Gett Off" is used (as intended, I think) as a jubilant celebration of individuality and sex positivity. I thought this was to establish Bopoto as an actualized character. She's not. Further interactions confirm that Bopoto is a mindless cipher set as counterpoint to Royal Groomer Mirembe (Nomzamo Mbatha), with whom Lavelle engages in a forbidden dalliance. Mirembe's goal is to open her own hair salon--a no-no in Zamunda. Meanwhile, Akeem's eldest daughter, Meeka (KiKi Layne), dreams of becoming heir to the crown, which is likewise not allowed. If you hope that Coming 2 America will, in part, be a girl-power narrative about Akeem getting "woke," you're really going to love this movie. For me, I liked those two scenes that felt powerful and positive; I like Leslie Jones always, and she elevates this material with her warmth and generosity; and however I feel about movies like this, I'm glad they exist.