It’s been 33 years since Coming to America stormed the global box office, and given the film’s fondness for sexism and stereotypes it might seem an odd move to revisit its characters in a more enlightened age. Although written and directed by three white men, it was, nonetheless, a landmark of commercial Black cinema, featuring an almost entirely African American cast and one of Eddie Murphy’s most charming performances, while it is fondly remembered by many, so perhaps a sequel is worth a shot.
Craig Brewer (who worked fruitfully with Murphy on Dolemite Is My Name) takes over from John Landis at the helm, while original screenwriters Barry W Blaustein and David Sheffield collaborate with Girls Trip‘s Kenya Barris this time round. They return us to the fictional African country of Zamunda, now presided over by Eddie Murphy’s Akeem – who we see taking over from James Earl Jones’s King Jaffe Joffer – with his American wife Lisa (Shari Headley) and right-hand man Semmi (Arsenio Hall) still by his side.
Coming 2 America sets out its stall with an agreeable-enough combination of cameos (from Morgan Freeman and Gladys Knight, amongst many others), nods to the original (Zamunda has its own ‘McDowell’s’ fast-food joint) and updates (adding male as well as female ‘bathers’, giving Akeem three feisty daughters). The story sees Akeem return to New York’s Queens to track down his illegitimate son (Jermaine Fowler’s Lavelle), as he needs a male heir to show strength and help fend off a challenge from the leader of a rival country, General Izzi (Wesley Snipes). Leslie Jones plays Lavelle’s mother, the ‘morally bereft woman’ who Akeem had a drug-fuelled liaison with back in the 80s (brought to life via some fairly terrible de-aging effects) and 30 Rock‘s Tracy Morgan is the young man’s slightly sketchy uncle.
In an attempt to trump the original’s Oscar-nominated costume design, the film brings in an Oscar-winner, Black Panther‘s Ruth E Carter, who absolutely nails it and gives proceedings a vibrant visual flavour not unlike that Marvel smash. Black Panther is further evoked through the rivalry / conflict narrative, with Snipes’s Izzi the sequel’s most successful addition; his scenery-chomping, wild-eyed turn (his character is described in various OTT terms, including as ‘the inspiration for Mufasa’) is welcome, even if he’s not around enough.
With Murphy’s protagonist having lost much of his lovability, it’s up to the likeable if not especially funny Fowler to provide us with the main emotional journey, which feels like a desperately pale imitation of the young Akeem’s. And his character’s screen-time is at the expense of Akeem’s three daughters – including Murphy’s own daughter Bella, as middle child Omma. Despite casting the estimable KiKi Layne (star of Barry Jenkins’ Oscar-winning If Beale Street Could Talk) as Akeem’s eldest, who had hoped to become his heir, and apparently setting her up for an interesting arc, the actress is then shamefully sidelined for most of the duration, while the film’s feminism – which sees the girls doing some fighting and not much else – feels tacked on.
A number of clips from the first film are unnecessarily inserted (including a weirdly belated recap) and its narrative beats are emulated, regardless of whether they make sense here. Coming 2 America leans too heavily on audiences’ assumed affection for the original, struggling to create anything memorable of its own and eventually flooding the film chaotically with characters. The fusion of cultures and farcical elements generate some fun, yet without a sharp script and original story ideas the novelty is quickly lost, and ultimately it feels like this sequel really wasn’t such a great shout after all.
Available to watch on Amazon Prime Video from Fri 5 Mar.Last modified: April 7, 2021