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Thursday, June 29, 2017

Coming to America: A Royal Anniversary Celebration

Coming to America Premiered on June 29, 1988 – and Became an Instant Classic

By Chris Sabga



Ready to feel old? "Coming to America" is almost 30. It premiered nearly three decades ago, on June 29, 1988. That makes it 29 years old, to be exact, in 2017.

It was an instant classic.

Everyone knows the story by now (and if you don't, see the movie ASAP!): Prince Akeem (Eddie Murphy) is tired of living a lavish lifestyle of resplendent royalty – which includes being bathed by beautiful women and having his shoes tied for him. "I tied my own shoes once!" the domineering King Jaffe Joffer (the great James Earl Jones) confessed to his son. "It is an overrated experience." (I agree!)

But Akeem's problems go beyond baths and shoelaces.

Being the prince of Zumunda, Africa, also means submitting to an arranged marriage. "I want the woman to love me for who I am," Akeem insists, "not because of what I am." Therefore, the Prince of Zamunda declares that he's coming to America to find his bride. "But where," his servant and friend Semmi (Arsenio Hall) wonders, "can one find a woman with grace, elegance, taste, and culture? A woman suitable for a king." The answer, of course, is Queens.

Queens, New York, that is.

The prince immediately finds a job in America – as a janitor. He works at a fast food restaurant called McDowell's – not to be confused with McDonald's, you see. "Look, me and the McDonald's people got this little misunderstanding," his new boss, Cleo McDowell (John Amos, "Good Times"), explains. "See, they're McDonald's – I'm McDowell's. They got the Golden Arches, mine is the Golden Arcs. They got the Big Mac, I got the Big Mick. We both got two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, and onions, but their buns have sesame seeds. My buns have no seeds." McDowell's, however, has something McDonald's never will: Lisa (Shari Headley), the boss's beautiful daughter.




As good as Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall are in this movie, especially together, James Earl Jones steals every scene as the bombastic King Jaffe Joffer. Madge Sinclair, who portrays Queen Aoleon, is every bit as superb – especially when she stands up to her overbearing but loving husband: "Put a sock in it, Jaffe," she chastises, "the boy is in love." 

Indeed, it's love at first sight for Akeem.

And it was love at first sight for audiences when "Coming to America" premiered in 1988 – and in all the decades since. Not one single person I know dislikes the movie. It's remembered with such great warmth, fondness, and affection. The mere mention of it never fails to elicit a smile from a person's face. Even my own immediate family unanimously loves the film, and we're all very different people in every other way. That's because there's something for everyone in "Coming to America." The performances, characters, writing, and dialogue are all exceptional – and exceptionally hilarious. 

In the 1980s, Eddie Murphy was known primarily for his wisecracking, blue collar, off-color roles in "Trading Places," "Beverly Hills Cop," and "48 Hrs." While those remain cherished classics, "Coming to America" stands out for one reason: its inherent sweetness. Yes, the movie certainly earns its "R" rating with several raunchy jokes and situations, but it's ultimately nice and innocent in a way the others aren't. That is the secret of its success.

Fun Facts:
  • Diehard fans of "Coming to America" already know that both Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall portray multiple characters. Their makeup by Rick Baker was nominated for an Oscar that year. Beetlejuice won, which I suppose is understandable, but my heart is with "Coming to America."
  • "Coming to America" was Cuba Gooding Jr.'s first film. He plays the boy in the barbershop.
  • Look for Samuel L. Jackson in a small role as the robber who holds-up McDowell's.
  • Future "E.R." standout Eric LaSalle shows up as Lisa's boyfriend.
  • Comedian and future "Family Feud" host Louie Anderson is behind the McDowell's counter as the fry cook.
  • Frankie Faison chomps cigars and chews scenery as Murphy and Hall's landlord/slumlord.
  • Akeem's fictional homeland of Zamunda in Africa was named after Bob Zmuda, who is best known for his association with Andy Kaufman.
  • "Coming to America" contains a great reference to "Star Wars" (Episode IV): King Jaffe Joffer commands: "Do not alert him to my presence. I will deal with him myself." In "Star Wars," Darth Vader orders: "No. Leave them to me. I will deal with them myself." James Earl Jones portrayed both characters. He played Jaffe and provided the voice of Darth Vader.
  • There is also a reference in "Coming to America" to Eddie Murphy's earlier film "Trading Places": Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche reprise their roles as Randolph and Mortimer – only this time, they're homeless and penniless. Akeem helps them out by handing them a sizable chunk of cash. Would Murphy's Billy Ray Valentine from "Trading Places" have been so generous? Probably not.

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