Sequels and Part Two's
Illustration by Ayo Arogunmati
Vaudeville, often explained as being derived from the French expression Voix de Ville, translated in English to Voice of the City, was a theatrical genre of variety entertainment that originated in France at the end of the 18th century, becoming more popular in the United States in the early 20th century. This show was an ensemble of musicians, singers, dancers and athletes travelling from one city to the next. A typical show involved a sketch in which the Vaudevillians used blackface to get cheap laughs from the audience. In 1988, John Landis, the director of Coming to America, came across an article that informed him of the blackface sketches performed by Jewish Vaudevillians. Upset by the performances, he suggested to Eddie Murphy that he play a Jewish man named Saul, the white man always at the barbershop.
Coming to America was released in 1988, with a budget of thirty-five million dollars, and generating gross box office sales of two hundred and eighty-nine million dollars. The film was a departure from Murphy’s career to date. Starring in films such as 48 Hours, Trading Places, and Beverly Hills Cop, Murphy was considered tame by many critics, who also gave poor reviews. This however, did not stop the success of the film. In 2019 dollars, the film would be made for approximately sixty million dollars, generating six hundred and fifteen million. Despite the financial success of the film, the representation of Africa was criticized for its lack of depth and perpetuating certain stereotypes of the African. Nevertheless, Murphy, at the time of release, was coming off one of the greatest stretch of any entertainer in American history. He was the biggest star in the 80’s, a leading man on Saturday Night Live and 48 Hours, his first box office film.
This year, it was announced that the production of Coming 2 America is in motion, a sequel to Coming to America, which will star many of the familiar faces from the debut film, including Murphy, Arsenio Hall, and James Earl Jones. By casting most of the ensemble from the original film, the mechanics of the film are correct, but there is doubt about whether the cast can recreate the cultural ubiquity and endless quotability of Coming to America. Murphy is no longer the biggest star in Hollywood, therefore, the stardom that powered through all the negative criticisms of the 80’s is missing from today’s film landscape. There was a perception around the lifestyle of the actor in the 80’s that is no longer present. We were engulfed in the secret lives of celebrities prior to the real time reporting on celebrities disseminated through social media and TMZ. Lastly, while there are still gatekeepers in the film industry, they matter less in 2019. Murphy’s talent was clearly above his peers, but the Hollywood machine also propelled his cultural ubiquity.
Coming to America is a cultural phenomenon, it is an African-American film that is not viewed with this singular description like many other films produced and starring a predominantly African-American cast. The film focused on the themes of love, family, culture and wealth. All these themes were evidenced in scenes between Akeem and Lisa, and Mr. McDowell and King Jaffe Joffer, King of Zamunda. However, what I have come to realize, is that Coming to America is foremost about Murphy himself. Akeem is Murphy and Zamunda, although many have referenced Wakanda as the new version of Zamunda, is just Hollywood. Zamunda is a fantasy world and Hollywood is a fantasy world. Murphy is Akeem, a man who is a prince with immense wealth and wants to find his true self through the search for his soul-mate. In the 80’s, Murphy was the Prince of Hollywood, and going back to Queen’s may have been his quest for truth. While he doesn’t stay in Queens, he brings Queens with him back to Zamunda.
Coming 2 America can be expected to fall short of the cultural ubiquity generated by the prequel, not because there is a lack of brilliance in the script or poor production, but because that version of Murphy, along with the perceptions of his lavish lifestyle that floated in gossip columns during the 80’s no longer exists in our consciousness. The addition by the director to include a new character named Saul because of an article on Vaudevillians is unlikely and will not resonate the same way it did in 1988. Finally, the criticisms that led to an African-American cast seen in the film following the rise of Murphy’s stardom has vanished.
Coming to America is final, Akeem lives on happily without compromising himself. Coming 2 America will have the familiar bodies on screen, however, the story of these characters has ended for many of the fans of the original film.