Coming to America is a 1988 American romantic comedy film directed by John Landis and based on a story originally created by Eddie Murphy, who also starred in the lead role. The film also co-stars Arsenio Hall, James Earl Jones, Shari Headley, and John Amos. The film was released in the United States on June 29, 1988. Eddie Murphy plays Akeem Joffer, the crown prince of the fictional African nation of Zamunda, who comes to the United States in the hopes of finding a woman he can marry.
In 1989, a pilot for a planned spin-off TV show was made, although this was never picked up for a series.
In the fictional wealthy African nation of Zamunda, crown prince Akeem Joffer grows weary of his pampered lifestyle on his 21st birthday and wishes to do more for himself. When his parents, King Jaffe and Queen Aeoleon, present him with an arranged bride-to-be, Akeem takes action. Seeking an independent woman who loves him for himself and not his social status, Akeem and his best friend/personal aide, Semmi, travel to the New York City borough of Queens and rent a squalid tenement in the neighborhood of Long Island City under the guise of poor foreign students. Beginning their search for Akeem’s bride, they end up invited by some locals to a rally that is raising money for the inner city. During the rally, Akeem encounters Lisa McDowell, who possesses all the qualities he is looking for, and upon his insistence he and Semmi get entry-level jobs working at the local fast food restaurant called McDowell’s—an obvious ripoff of McDonald’s—owned by widower Cleo McDowell, Lisa’s father.
Akeem’s attempts to win Lisa’s love are complicated by Lisa’s lazy and obnoxious boyfriend, Darryl Jenks (Eriq La Salle), whose father owns Soul Glo (a Jheri curl–like hairstyling aid). After Darryl announces their engagement—without Lisa’s consent—to their families, she starts dating Akeem, who claims that he comes from a family of poor goat herders. Meanwhile, although Akeem thrives on hard work and learning how commoners live, Semmi is not comfortable with living in such meager conditions. After a dinner date with Lisa is thwarted when Semmi furnishes their apartment with a jacuzzi and other luxuries, Akeem confiscates his money and donates it to two homeless men. Semmi wires a telegraph to King Jaffe for more money, prompting the Joffers to travel to Queens and expose his identity as a prince.
Cleo, initially disapproving of Akeem as he did not want to see his daughter with a poor man, becomes ecstatic when he discovers that Akeem is actually an extremely wealthy prince after being introduced to the Joffers. When Akeem discovers that his parents have arrived in the United States, he and Lisa take shelter at the McDowell residence where Cleo welcomes them. After Cleo’s bond with Akeem is ruined by Darryl’s unexpected arrival, Lisa later becomes angry and confused that Akeem lied to her about his identity. Akeem explains that he wanted her to love him for who, not what, he is, even offering to renounce his throne; but Lisa, still hurt and angry, refuses to marry him. Despondent, Akeem resigns himself to the arranged marriage, but as they leave, Jaffe is reprimanded by Aeoleon for clinging to outdated traditions instead of thinking of his son’s happiness.
At the wedding procession, a still-heartbroken Akeem becomes surprised when his veiled bride-to-be is Lisa herself. Following the ceremony, they ride happily in a carriage to the cheers of Zamundans. Witnessing such splendor, Lisa is both surprised and touched by the fact that Akeem would have given it up just for her. Akeem offers again to abdicate if she doesn’t want this life, but Lisa playfully declines.
- Eddie Murphy as Prince Akeem, the prince of Zamunda
- Murphy also plays: Randy Watson, a soul singer with the fictional band Sexual Chocolate; Saul, the white Jewish barbershop customer; and Clarence, the owner of the barber shop.
- Arsenio Hall as Semmi, Akeem’s friend
- Hall also plays: Reverend Brown; Morris the barber; and Extremely Ugly Girl, an unattractive female clubgoer.
- James Earl Jones as King Jaffe Joffer, Akeem’s father and King of Zamunda.
- John Amos as Cleo McDowell, Akeem’s employer and Lisa’s father.
- Madge Sinclair as Queen Aoleon, Akeem’s mother and the Queen of Zamunda.
- Shari Headley as Lisa McDowell, Cleo’s oldest daughter and Akeem’s love interest.
- Paul Bates as Oha, a royal servant.
- Eriq La Salle as Darryl Jenks, Lisa’s boyfriend whom she eventually breaks up with.
- Frankie Faison as Landlord, manages apartment building where Akeem and Semmi live
- Vanessa Bell as Imani Izzi, betrothed as Akeem’s intended wife
- Louie Anderson as Maurice, a McDowell’s employee
- Allison Dean as Patrice McDowell, Cleo’s youngest daughter and Lisa’s sister
- Sheila Johnson as Lady-in-Waiting
- Jake Steinfeld as Cab Driver
- Calvin Lockhart as Colonel Izzi, Imani‘s father
- Samuel L. Jackson as Hold-Up Man, an armed robber at McDowell’s
The cast also includes: Vondie Curtis-Hall as Basketball Game Vendor; Garcelle Beauvais as a royal Rose Bearer; Victoria Dillard as a royal personal Bather; as well as the film debuts of Ruben Hudson as Street Hustler and Cuba Gooding Jr. as Boy Getting Haircut.
Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy reprise their roles as, respectively, Mortimer and Randolph Duke from Landis’ 1983 Murphy-starring comedy film Trading Places. A segment of the Trading Places score can be heard during their scene.
As shown above, Coming to America features Murphy and Hall in several different roles, of various colours, creeds and genders. Following the success of this film, this became a Murphy staple, as seen in four later films: Vampire in Brooklyn (1995); The Nutty Professor (1996); Nutty Professor II: The Klumps (2000); and Norbit (2007).
Coming to America reunited star Eddie Murphy with director John Landis. The two had previously worked together on the comedy hit Trading Places (1983). Landis recalled the differences in working with Murphy on the two movies: “The guy on Trading Places was young and full of energy and curious and funny and fresh and great. The guy on Coming to America was the pig of the world… But I still think he’s wonderful in the movie.” Murphy said:
We had a tussling confrontation… We didn’t come to blows. Personalities didn’t mesh. … He directed me in Trading Places when I was just starting out as a kid, but he was still treating me like a kid five years later during Coming to America. And I hired him to direct the movie! I was gonna direct Coming to America myself, but I knew that Landis had just done three f*****-up pictures in a row and that his career was hanging by a thread after the Twilight Zone trial. I figured the guy was nice to me when I did Trading Places, so I’d give him a shot… I was going out of my way to help this guy, and he f***** me over. Now he’s got a hit picture on his resumé, a movie that made over $200 million, as opposed to him coming off a couple of f*****-up movies – which is where I’d rather see him be right now.
Despite the experience, Landis and Murphy collaborated again six years later on Beverly Hills Cop III.
South African chorus Ladysmith Black Mambazo sings Mbube during the opening sequence (the song also known as The Lion Sleeps Tonight). The group has gone on to record several different versions of Mbube; however, the version heard in Coming to America had not been released on its soundtrack or on CD as of 2006.
Paramount cancelled press screenings of the film after initial negative reactions to a press screening in New York.
Released on June 29, 1988, by Paramount Pictures in the United States, it was a commercial box-office success, both domestically and worldwide. The film debuted at number one with $21,404,420 from 2,064 screens, for a five-day total of $28,409,497. The film made $128,152,301 in the United States and ended up with a worldwide total of $288,752,301. It was the highest earning film that year for the studio and the third-highest-grossing film at the United States box office.
It opened a month later in the UK and earned $7,712,622 during its seven-week run. It opened on September 2 in West Germany, where it debuted at number one with $3,715,791 from 297 screens. It ended its run after 13 weeks with $15,743,447.
The film was nominated for two Oscars: Best Costume Design by Deborah Nadoolman Landis and Best Makeup by Rick Baker, who designed the makeup effects for both Murphy’s and Arsenio Hall’s multiple supporting characters.
The film was the subject of the Buchwald v. Paramount civil suit, which the humorist Art Buchwald filed in 1990 against the film’s producers on the grounds that the film’s idea was stolen from his 1982 script treatment about a rich, despotic African potentate who comes to America for a state visit. Paramount had optioned the treatment from Buchwald, and John Landis was attached as director and Eddie Murphy as the lead, but after two years of development hell Paramount abandoned the project in March 1985. In 1987, Paramount began working on Coming to America based on a story by Eddie Murphy. Buchwald won the breach of contract action and the court ordered monetary damages. The parties later settled the case out-of-court before an appeal going to trial.
The soundtrack to the film was released on LP, cassette and CD. The songs “Coming to America” by The System, “Better Late Than Never” by The Cover Girls and “Come into My Life” by Laura Branigan and Joe Esposito were released as singles from the album. “That’s The Way It Is” by Mel & Kim had been released as a single in the UK, before the film’s release, in February 1988, and became a top ten hit. It was released as a single in the US at the time of the film’s release.
- Side A
- “Coming to America” — The System (3:49)
- “Better Late Than Never” — The Cover Girls (4:02)
- “All Dressed Up (Ready to Hit the Town)” — Chico DeBarge (4:50)
- “I Like It Like That” — Michael Rodgers (4:01)
- “That’s the Way It Is” — Mel and Kim (3:25)
- Side B
- “Addicted to You” — LeVert (3:54)
- “Comin’ Correct” — J.J. Fad (3:56)
- “Livin’ the Good Life” — Sister Sledge (3:46)
- “Transparent” — Nona Hendryx (3:50)
- “Come into My Life” — Laura Branigan and Joe Esposito (4:39)
A television pilot of a weekly sitcom version of the film was produced for CBS, following the film’s success, starring Tommy Davidson as Prince Tariq, and Paul Bates reprising his role as Oha. The pilot went unsold, but was televised on July 4, 1989 as part of the CBS Summer Playhouse pilot anthology series.
Influences in music
The melody heard in the bathroom scene, where Prince Akeem is being washed by female servants, was sampled in Snoop Dogg‘s 2006 song “That’s That” featuring R. Kelly; a remix of the song featuring rapper Nas includes a woman’s voice saying “the royal penis is clean your highness”, a line taken from the same scene. Also, the music videos for Busta Rhymes‘ 1997 single “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See” and Action Bronson’s 2015 single “Baby Blue” are loosely based on the film. The song “Coming 2 America” by Ludacris from the album Word of Mouf features samples and lyrics referencing the film.
In early 2017, an announcement was publicized which addressed the impending production of a sequel to the film. Kevin Misher was named as producer, and Sheffield and Blaustein, the original screenwriters, were also attached to the project. However, a possible participation of lead actors Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall was left undefined. According to several public accounts, Murphy himself apparently posted an announcement regarding the film project a month prior on Facebook, but later claimed that his account had been hacked and completely deleted it.
On January 11, 2019, it was announced that the sequel will be moving forward with Murphy reprising his role and Craig Brewer as director (having previously worked with Murphy on the Netflix film Dolemite Is My Name). Arsenio Hall, Shari Headley, John Amos and James Earl Jones are expected return for the sequel as well.