Before there was Wakanda in “Black Panther,” there was Zamunda, in “Coming to America.”
It was a fantasized African kingdom ruled by an absurdly rich king whose son, the heir to the throne, balks at the marriage arranged for him. His preselected bride was beautiful enough, “a vision of perfection, an object of affection to quench your royal fire, completely free from infection, to be used at your discretion.”
But, says Prince Akeem (Eddie Murphy), “I intend to find my bride ... I want a woman who will arouse my intellect as well as my loins.”
“Where would you find such a woman,” his loyal servant, Semmi (Arsenio Hall,) asks him.
“In America,” the prince responds. But where in America?
“We'll let fate decide,” says Akeem. “Heads, New York. Tails, Los Angeles.”
The flip comes up heads – specifically the head of Prince Akeem on a Zamundan coin. “We go to New York,” Akeem says.
In America, the men disguise themselves as poor international students. They live in a rat-infested apartment and work as dishwashers at a fast-food restaurant called McDowell's. And Akeem falls in love with Lisa McDowell, the daughter of the restaurant's owner.
“Coming to America” was ahead of its time when it hit theaters June 29, 1988, 30 years ago, especially for blacks. The basic plot itself was standard boy meets girl and falls in love.
But it provided an alternative representation of blackness and created a space for actors of color that was anything but standard.
It featured Cuba Gooding Jr. in his first big screen appearance and Hall, before he became a mega late-night host. Paula Abdul choreographed a two-minute African dance number.
And 30 years later, the movie still remains one of the very few mainstream Hollywood black romantic comedies.
At the time, Murphy was becoming an international star and was one of the most in-demand comedic actors. He had wrapped up his run on “Saturday Night Live” and had two highly successful movies under his belt, “Trading Places” and “Beverly Hills Cop.”
But this was his first major turn as a romantic lead. The film wasn't a critical success for Paramount Pictures. But “Coming to America” went on to become one of the highest-grossing films of all time featuring blacks, reaping $128 million domestically at box offices and a reported $350 million internationally.
It performed better than “Beetlejuice,” “Die Hard,” and “Big” at the box office that year, ranking 26th out of the top 100 movies released in the 1980s.
“We never thought it would have been so big. There really hasn't been anything like it since,” Shari Headley, who played Lisa McDowell, told the Washington Post. Headley said she didn't even have an agent. Her friend suggested she take a chance and audition for the role. After the film premiered, Headley said she was “literally mobbed everywhere (she) went.”
“It's really a milestone in black films,” said Monica White Ndounou, associate professor of theater at Dartmouth College. She noted that to this day, the most widely distributed and produced films about blacks are set in slavery, the civil rights movement or the inner city.
“You get this narrative of black people always being embattled and oppressed,” she said. “Films like 'Black Panther' and 'Coming to America' change this.”
“I haven't encountered one black person on this planet, who doesn't know at least one line from the movie,” Ndounou said.
There has not been such a successful romantic comedy with a majority black cast since the film's release.
But Racquel Gates, a professor of cinema studies at CUNY, College of Staten Island, said: “I think we always have to be very cautious about judging the success of a film, especially a black film, by box office numbers because studios are notorious for underselling black cast films and not promoting them.”
Paramount did not release advance screeners of “Coming to America” for critics “because they had a lot of hesitation about whether the film was going to do well because they considered it a black film,” Gates said.
But its success was largely due to crossover appeal. As Ndounou wrote in her book, “Shaping the Future of African American Film” the “jokes in the film generate communal laughter among African Americans while establishing bonds between African Americans, white Americans, and the foreign market.” There are also no interracial conflicts between whites and blacks in the film.
Also unique, Ndounou noted, was that Murphy and Hall played lead characters, as well as several supporting characters. This served as a precedent for subsequent films. Many black comedians today play multiple roles in their films, including sometimes cross-dressing, such as Tyler Perry's “Madea” franchise and Martin Lawrence “Big Momma's House” films.
And 30 years later, said Headley, “people still stop me on the street and call me Lisa.”