Before diving into the particulars of Coming 2 America, it is important to look back on the release of its predecessor, 1988’s Coming to America, a progressive film for its time in its depiction of an all-Black cast, driven by the comedic genius that is Eddie Murphy. In the early 1980s, Murphy began to hit his stride with his stint on Saturday Night Live, as well as releasing classics like Trading Places and Beverly Hills Cop. By 1988, Murphy was a star, and the success of Coming to America only furthered his momentum. This film became one of the highest-grossing films of 1988, proving that a non-white cast could produce financial gains — a concept which Hollywood remains slow to acknowledge to this day.
Now, in 2021, its sequel emerges in a very different media landscape, from the way in which films are distributed to how movie stars might drive engagement in a largely post-movie star world. Murphy began to make a resurgence with 2019’s Dolemite is My Name, and with Coming 2 America (streaming on Amazon Prime) he flexes his comedic chops once more as he returns to a property that was and is a cultural staple and a vital step forward for Black representation.
Over three decades after the events of Coming to America, we return to the fictional African country of Zamunda, where an aging King Jaffe (James Earl Jones) remains unconvinced that his son Prince Akeem (Eddie Murphy) is strong enough to assume the throne amid rising threats from their militant neighboring country Nextdoria. Due to an arcane Zamundan law which states that only a male heir can rule — a notion which Akeem’s eldest, capable daughter Meeka (KiKi Layne) resents — Akeem faces the challenge of finding this heir.
As it happens, Akeem does have a son, Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler), whom Akeem fathered while traversing Queens in the 1980s prior to meeting his wife Lisa (Shari Headley). With his loyal aide and best friend Semmi (Arsenio Hall), Akeem returns to America to bring Lavelle and his mother, Mary (Leslie Jones), back to Zamunda so his son can learn the ways of the royal crown.
There is fun to be had with Coming 2 America, largely thanks to Murphy and Hall, as well as new additions Leslie Jones and Tracy Morgan as Lavelle’s Uncle Reem, both of whom clearly enjoyed making this film. Shari Headley is also given more material this time around; she served largely as a plot device in the first film, so Lisa and her relationship with Akeem benefit from deeper exploration here. Director Craig Brewer and Murphy find ways to call back to the first film with various cameos and references without feeling too much like fan-service — particularly with the welcome return of the Queens barbershop.
Murphy’s stardom still drives this vehicle, but as much as this is a continuation of Akeem’s story, it is just as much if not more so about the next generation. With so much emphasis focused on Lavelle, Jermaine Fowler has big shoes to fill, and for the most part, he has enough on-screen presence to keep the story engaging, but it is unfortunate that this often comes at the expense of giving Murphy more screen-time, particularly because Murphy has such commanding charisma — the primary reason Coming to America and Murphy himself have remained relevant. I do wonder whether this story would have been better served by paying this degree of attention to KiKi Layne’s Meeka instead, not only because Layne is a more compelling actor but because a female perspective on what it means to rule might modernize this story even more.
Although the familial elements of Coming 2 America provide some heartwarming emotional beats, this film ultimately crumbles under its structural issues. Coming to America contains quirky comedic moments, and certainly some parts don’t age well, but it benefitted from a simple premise: a prince in search of true love. Its sequel tries to set up too many plot impetuses at once, from the need to find a male heir, to diplomatic threats from a neighboring country, to Akeem’s daughters’ place in the Zamundan hierarchy. Not only is Lavelle’s existence revealed to Akeem somewhat conveniently, but the nature of his conception is extremely problematic, with Akeem having been drugged prior to sleeping with Mary. This unsettling setup taints Akeem’s interactions with Mary and Lavelle and complicates my ability to sympathize with the characters.
Part of the charm of Coming to America was its fish-out-of-water story, with Akeem and Semmi traveling to Queens and experiencing a culture different from their own, thus grounding them in the process. Coming 2 America explores the inverse of that with Lavelle being the one out of his element in Zamunda. While I enjoyed spending more time in this country and seeing the stunning, African-inspired wardrobes that Oscar-winning costume designer Ruth E. Carter crafted, I confess that I missed having Queens as the main setting. In many ways, it signified the heart of the film and reflected the journey Akeem took. It’s certainly a fine line when crafting a sequel that must stand on its own feet while paying tribute to what came before, but I’m not convinced Coming 2 America strikes that balance.
It is unfortunate that Coming 2 America did not receive a traditional theatrical release, because these stories are worth seeing on the biggest screen you can find. But much like the changes Akeem and his family must face in their leadership roles, the film and theater landscape changes, too. For fans of the original, I think there is enough enjoyment to mine from seeing these familiar characters and the continuation of old jokes and gags (the McDowell’s bit is still extremely funny to me). Ultimately, Coming 2 America is less of a straightforward comedy and more of a family dramedy. This is due in part to the film’s PG-13 rating, but the focus is also more spread out across the rest of Akeem’s family members. The laughs may be fewer and far between, and those expecting Murphy to remain center stage for the duration of the film will notice his absence throughout many scenes, but Coming 2 America still boasts a talented cast and a world worth revisiting.