Though you could argue that most movie sequels are unnecessary, there are rare moments when a second installment to a much-loved film can improve upon the original. With Coming 2 America, out today on Amazon Prime, Eddie Murphy proves comedians can still be funny even while adapting their art for a culture whose social mores have drastically shifted in the last 33 years.
If you’ve watched the original 1988 film, in which Murphy stars as an African prince named Akeem who concocts a plan to visit New York to find a wife and eventual queen, you would be justified in wondering how the film’s creators would update some of the brash and downright offensive humor for audiences in the year 2021. The sequel, which was written by Kenya Barris (Black-ish), Barry W. Blaustein, and David Sheffield and directed by Craig Brewer (Dolemite Is My Name), attempts to please lovers of the original film while being cognizant of the fact that it is the 21st century. For the most part, Coming 2 America, which Murphy coproduced, accomplishes its aims. Instead of punching down or lamenting that people are much too sensitive now, the film highlights its flaws while offering a corrective that should satiate more critical viewers. Spoilers ahead.
The story begins with a dilemma. Akeem is still the prince of the fictional country Zamunda (I’m sure Prince Charles can relate) because his father, King Jaffe Joffer, played by the incomparable James Earl Jones, has yet to die. While on his deathbed, the king lets Akeem know he’s disappointed that Akeem has no sons (he has three daughters; the oldest, Meeka, is played by KiKi Layne) because only a male heir can inherit the throne. But then we learn that Akeem does have a son, whom he fathered 33 years ago during a random hookup with a New Yorker named Mary, played by Leslie Jones. (Depending on your perspective, the encounter could be considered nonconsensual as Mary gives the prince weed, a drug he doesn’t recognize, before they hook up.) From there the movie takes off, with Murphy and his best friend Semmi (Arsenio Hall) returning to Queens in search of his son, Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler).
Sexism was rampant in the first Coming to America movie. Think about the scene in the beginning of the film where a trio of women bathe Akeem, some topless. “The royal penis is clean, your highness,” says one of the women after. While that sort of objectification is still present in the sequel, there’s more of a balance.
After Akeem and Semmi find Lavelle and Mary, the four travel back to Zamunda to get the new prince acquainted with life in the royal palace. Before Lavelle has his first royal bath though, he seeks out his mother’s advice: “I’m freaking out right now because there are three girls — they in my room right now — and they just offered to bathe me.” Lavelle tells her. Without missing a beat, and looking very much like Oprah in this bubble bath GIF, Mary replies, “OK baby, first of all, calm down. You know we in another country, and you know they have different traditions and customs the way that they do stuff. You need to roll with it.” Once Lavelle leaves the room, a very fine, muscular man emerges from Mary’s tub having just cleaned her “royal privates.” The scene is hilarious because it shows Jones’ character getting hers — clearly very much acclimated to such a posh lifestyle. It’s even better because it’s not a joke at her expense, which is refreshing.
Another way in which Coming 2 America shows its audience that it has learned a thing or two since the late ’80s is with the cast of characters from the iconic My-T-Sharp barbershop. The four characters, Morris, Clarence, Sweets, and Saul, some of whom are played by Murphy and Hall who reprise their roles, were already very old in the last movie and don’t seem to have aged much in the last 30 years, which is a genetic feat. While they may not look that much different physically, their politics have certainly evolved, at least to the point where they can recognize that some of the jokes they make are a little offensive.
When Akeem and Semmi enter the shop, presumably for the first time in three decades, one of the men greets them by saying, “Hey, look it’s Kunta Kinte and Ebola,” followed by another who calls the two “famine and blood diamond,” and another “Nelson Mandela and Winnie.” It’s a matter of taste if you find the lines funny, but I read the scene as representative of how older people can be stuck in their ways. And humor doesn’t always have to be politically correct to be funny. And they’re clearly not complete lost causes, even if they could be a bit more self-aware. When a man getting his haircut tries to chime in, saying, “those hungry babies with the flies on their face,” the men tell him that joke is a bridge too far.
There are other moments in the film that show the creators’ attempts to appeal to a younger generation and to make clear that just because something has always been a tradition doesn’t mean that it must always be that way. There’s a flexibility and willingness to learn that comes across in the movie, and it’s nice to see. For example, Layne’s character Meeka makes it clear that she’s upset that Lavelle gets to sit on the throne simply because he is a man. While the writers could have developed this thread further, the movie’s end is satisfying, acknowledging Meek’s rightful place in the line of succession while highlighting Akeem’s evolution on the subject.
But while the film’s creators definitely did a lot of work to make sure today’s viewers could watch the film without cringing, there were some moments that fell flat. While Murphy has come a long way since his days of telling anti-gay jokes (the actor has since said his past comments were “ignorant”) — there’s a fleeting trans joke that served no real purpose in the film.
But despite its imperfect politics, Coming 2 America is a fun movie. Leslie Jones is, without a doubt, doing some of the best work she’s done onscreen, Hall does a great job reprising his role as Semmi, and Murphy continues to show he’s a master of his craft, playing various roles that all feel different yet true to who he is. Shari Headley, who plays Akeem’s wife, Lisa, gets to do a lot more, proving she can also be quite hilarious when given the opportunity. And there are plenty of references to the original film, including a cool nod to Murphy’s 1983 movie Trading Places. There are a lot of cameos that will definitely get the old heads going, from En Vogue and Salt-N-Pepa to Garcelle Beauvais and Morgan Freeman. It’s like a big, Black-ass class reunion, except you’re genuinely excited to see everyone who could make it. And I promise I didn’t spoil all the surprises.
Coming 2 America had a high bar to meet, as its predecessor is a classic, and only time will tell if the sequel rises to those ranks. But it’s certainly a worthy successor and definitely worth the 33-year wait. ●