Rated R mainly for an exceptional amount of nudity and swearing. It's not like this is a raunchy comedy or anything like that, but it definitely safe for work. From an aging perspective, there are some things that are progressive and some things that are really regressive. R.
DIRECTOR: John Landis
It's hard to get started writing about this. When I watched it, I couldn't wait to write about it. But then I watched a bunch of Academy Award nominations and wrote about those movies and I...lost my will to write something heavy for Coming to America. I had to watch it before watching Coming 2 America, which was up for Makeup and Hairstyling at the Academy Awards. It's not like I hadn't seen Coming to America before. But I had only watched the cable version in snippets. When watching the movie unedited and in chronological order, there were moments where I remembered every detail and there were scenes that I never knew existed.
I can come at Coming to America in two ways. The film might have introduced Wakanda before Wakanda was ever a concept. Or I could look at it with the notion that the movie still treats the African as uncivilized. I don't think the movie overtly takes the second option. There are so many of these moments of Americans as misunderstanding the concept of civilization. Akeem acts as a commentary on the backwards attitude of most Americans. Zamunda is this land of great wealth. Although the notions of hunting and a monarchy hold influence over Zamunda, the people seem happier than the people of Queens. Mind you, we only see the world of Zamunda through the eyes of Akeem's royal family. For all we know, Zamunda has really big problems, but it doesn't really seem like that. It actually seems like Zamunda has its act together, even if things are a little simplified economically. Contrast this to the people of America, who tend to step over each other. Landis has this montage sequence of American women, each more unromantic than the last. The joke ending this sequence is a little transphobic, but that can probably be chalked up to 1988. The point is that Zamunda's only real weakness lies in the fact that it is a land that lacks drive.
In this way, Coming to America actually serves to be an appropriate love letter to America. I am always weirded out when people get really mad when a movie or other work of art criticizes America. Coming to America is patriotic in the sense that it recognizes what Americans find valuable, not in its perfection. Zamunda looks like a utopia compared to America. (When I say "America", I'm really talking about Queens. Let's establish that as shorthand.) But Akeem finds no value in the people there. When he is betrothed to Imani, because she is only there to serve the crown, she lacks any real personality. For all of Akeem's riches, he would gladly sacrifice them for a sense of purpose. But Landis and Murphy make it clear that the American Dream is one that is built on sacrifice. That's the reason that Queens is portrayed as so filthy. (Mind you, a lot of that is based on the real Queens of 1988.)
However, it is in Akeems reactions to the people of Queens that the movie solidifies its message. There are two ways to view one of the most quotable lines of the film. When Akeem is on the balcony, wishing the people of Queens a good morning, he is quickly cursed at. Inappropriate, with a wide smile, he joyfully exclaims, "F-- you too!" Now, this joke mostly reads as a cultural difference. Akeem, adorably ignorant of America, misreads a social cue and shouts out profanity in response. The story allows for this because Akeem has been sheltered from any confrontation for his entire life. He has a little bit of Princess Jasmine in him in respects to that. But I also like to think that Akeem finds this vulgarity charming. It might not be that he doesn't know what is being said to him, but he finds value in the free vulgarity flying through the air. This is a character who bemoans having to walk on roses anywhere he goes. He's longed for the rough edges of the American Dream. And he's not the first character in history to do so. Because he has been so pampered, he has this element of Charles Bukowski in him. He loves the gutter because it is real. It's why he finds value in Lisa and not Imani.
Lisa may be an idealized character for the story, but she represents the best of America. Lisa is the princess of America. She has worked hard. She has a voice of her own. She is surrounded by toxic masculinity and has still found her voice. And in contrast to the other female characters of the story, she has success. It's just that Lisa's success is almost comically small compared to the wealth and riches that Akeem and Semmi find commonplace. What attracts Akeem is the idea that she might be unobtainable. After all, Akeem --for the most part --does everything in the movie right and still almost loses her. Because the film needs risks, Akeem's secret is what almost splits them apart. But Akeem actually has a good point with his lies. If people only want to marry him because he's a prince, that defeats the purpose overall. And it's not wrong that Lisa finds his deception offensive. It's just that there is no other way to present these people from two different worlds, both geographically and economically.
But the romance of the story is only an excuse to look at the different cultures of 1988 New York. Yeah, it's the part we watch for because it is relatable. But all of the tangents that the movie makes are because the movie wants jokes and act as satire. There's no reason to really have a McDonald's knock-off in the story. Heck, the Soul Glo joke keeps popping up without really going anywhere. The same holds true for the best part of the film, the barber shop. These are all moments where the film is actively poking fun at Americans. For all of its tribal attitudes towards Africa, I think the real brunt of the movie is commenting on the vanity of Americans. Everything is about looking good and being rich, something that Akeem finds vulgar. Yet, he's charmed by these sophomoric attempts to separate from the pack. It's kind of fun in its own way.
But this is all a way for me to write paragraphs. Because what is Coming to America except for a fun excuse for Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall to play some truly awesome characters? Perhaps Coming to America has more in common with sketch and variety shows than a single narrative, but that's okay. A funny movie needs jokes in it and those jokes mostly land. Just because there's a love story in the middle of it doesn't mean that there can't be some diversions.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.