Eddie Murphy, born in New York and now 59 years old, played a role in the late 1980s that turned him into a global cultural phenomenon. In “Coming to America,” he and an all-Black cast told the story of an African prince who traveled to New York searching for love. I spoke with Murphy, the lead actor and producer of the film, who called from the Los Angeles home that doubles as his pandemic bubble, and he told me that that film was in large part responsible for converting him into “the only Black actor in cinematic history to have a truly global audience.”
Now, more than 30 years later, “Coming 2 America” is being released, and Murphy is convinced that the sequel will reaffirm his assertion, one made without having consulted Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, Will Smith or even Sidney Poitier.
“Coming 2 America” is an updated version of the first film with the same premise. It’s “a story about love, family, tradition, what’s right,” explained the 65-year-old Cleveland-born actor Arsenio Hall, who spoke without removing his mask, even though our conversation was by phone, an hour before my conversation with Murphy. Although Hall and Murphy are friends, they haven’t met up in the same space to promote the movie. “The coronavirus scares me,” said Hall, who reprises his original role, as does the rest of the cast. Hall is the squire of Prince Akeem, played by Murphy. This time, though, the prince becomes king and has to face a dilemma: who will inherit the throne? He has three daughters, but only a male can succeed him. And then an illegitimate son from his first trip to New York appears. The protagonists return to Queens to look for this possible heir, opening a debate over feminism, race and even protection of the environment.
“The movie isn’t trying to preach or convince the audience about any particular ideas,” notes Murphy. Hall follows up, saying that, “It isn’t a movie about the problems that African Americans deal with or about their role in U.S. history. There’s no police officer’s boot on the head of a Black person. I’m proud of having made an hour-and-a-half movie for people to laugh at along with our story of Zamunda.” In other words, looking for a global hit, they haven’t ignored current issues, but neither have they taken a deep dive into them. “To make a movie successful around the world, you have to deal with universal themes,” explains Murphy.
They are not interested in expounding on the other milestone of the first film — that it was one of the first films to have an all-Black cast. Both actors recognize that in that regard, they were far ahead of “Black Panther.” In fact, they think of their work as the older cousin to Marvel’s film, in which the protagonist was a Black superhero and the cast spoke with African accents. “They are two movies that transcend the question of race and have been successful all over the world for that reason. In fact, ‘Black Panther’ has more messages about race than we do — our only idea was to be funny,” says Hall. “Only three movies have been able to achieve this in the history of film,” Murphy shoots back, adding “Coming 2 America” to the list. That’s all the insight they want to offer.
Screenwriter Kenya Barris, creator of the series “Black-ish,” was in charge of updating the script for “Coming 2 America.” Barris gathered the original film’s sceenwriters together, the first group Murphy contacted when he decided to do the movie 40 years ago; they are now around 70 years old. Hall recalls when his best friend, who is the godfather of his oldest daughter, called him to tell him about the idea of doing a sequel, and the pressure he felt. “I’ve received a lot of tweets saying ‘Don’t screw up the movie,’ ‘leave it as is,’ ‘it’s my favorite movie.’” Murphy, who is disconnected from social networks — he doesn’t have a computer or email — was self-assured about the film. “I never get nervous when I start a creative project. I’m an artist and I’m very confident as an artist,” he said.
The movie, produced by Paramount, completed filming at the end of 2019 and was ready for big screen release. When the pandemic hit, the producer decided to postpone its release until 2023. Then Amazon appeared. “Now they’re my idols, along with Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X,” Hall said after receiving $125 million for the work, according to Forbes magazine. Amazon will release the film on March 5. “We don’t know when it will be available in theaters. Thanks to streaming platforms, more people will be able to see the movie. And, I think it’s a movie that can be a breath of fresh air for a lot of people who have suffered and are suffering during this pandemic,” added Murphy.