To paraphrase a line from director Craig Brewer’s (Dolemite Is My Name) Coming 2 America, Hollywood is nothing but superhero films, remakes, and sequels no one asked for. Without getting into the numerous ways that’s an oversimplification that ignores the myriad of films released in a calendar year, the line pokes fun at itself as the last time audiences took a trip to the prosperous African country Zamunda, the year was 1988, comedian/actor Eddie Murphy was untouchable at the box office, and the idea of an African Prince coming to the United States to find love seemed like just another rom-com with a Black twist. Except Coming to America is not just another rom-com, as it is now considered an iconic comedy, for both its highly quotable lines and grounded performances. If only because Murphy’s Prince Akeem is so beloved, the idea of returning to the character is both tantalizing and torturous, as a misstep might ruin the cultural goodwill so engrained in modern society. I’m beyond relieved to declare Coming 2 America to be a rousing and surprising follow-up. It doesn’t have that spark of the original, but it doesn’t have to and, smartly, doesn’t try. Rather, it’s a 109-minute hang session with some long-lost friends. If that doesn’t sound like a pandemic remedy, nothing does.
Roughly 30 years since Akeem went to Queens, NY, to find his Queen in Lisa McDowell (Shari Headley), marriage is once more on the mind of Akeem as it is the only thing that will prevent a blood feud between Zamunda and a nearby rival country lead by General Izzi (Wesley Snipes). With Akeem’s eldest daughter Meeka (Kiki Layne) unwilling to marry Izzi’s son Idi (Rotmi), war seems certain. That is until Akeem learns that he may have sired a son during his trip to America and that son, Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler), may be just the solution he needs to broker peace via a marriage to Izzi’s daughter Bopoto (Teyana Taylor). Where Akeem was once the out-of-place journeyman in America, he must now guide Lavelle through the traditions of Zamunda; except while peace seems certain, Akeem will discover that the apple may not fall much farther from the tree.
2020 saw two different long-awaited sequels appear — Bad Boys for Life and Bill & Ted Face the Music — each acknowledging the past while finding clear ways to move the story forward. Such is the same with Coming 2 America, as the screenplay by Barry W. Blaustein (Coming to America), David Sheffield (Coming to America), and Kenya Barris (Black-ish), based on a story by Blaustein, Sheffield, and Justin Kanew (Adam and Eve), harkens back to the original tale so that all the things audiences loved in the late eighties return for a victory lap. As shown from the trailer, that means the boys from the barbershop, loyal royal servant Oha (Paul Bates), Cleo McDowell (John Amos), and countless more. These are icons audiences loved from the original and they are sure to bring with them a flood of serotonin as they do what they do best. But that’s not all that Coming 2 America is, and, if it were, the film truly would be worthy of that aforementioned self-aware dialogue. Where the first film was about Akeem becoming his own person in the shadow of his father, King Jaffe Joffer (James Earl Jones), by breaking tradition and choosing his bride, the second film explores how the rebellious nature of youth can be tempered by time to the point of forgetting who we once were. It also makes a point to explore the inherent misogyny of the previous film and how the progressive acts of once-young men can still cling to antiquated notions of social control. Akeem broke the chain of tradition by not marrying Colonel Izzi’s (Calvin Lockhart) daughter Imani (Vanessa Bell Calloway), yet he does not see the difference with his own children. Nor does Akeem ponder how it’s ok for him to break the rules as he sees fit yet is so willing to adhere to the law for his daughters. Amid countless laughs, Coming 2 America explores some heady concepts that one wouldn’t expect, but deserve to be discussed, contemplated, considered, and acted upon. When one considers the progressive nature of the original, this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise for the sequel.
This is not to suggest that Coming 2 America is a feminist SJW tale. It dips its toe in narratively, but never really goes for it. Instead, the exploration of gender roles comes from the women informing the men and then expecting Akeem/Lavelle to do something about it. Zamunda isn’t the paradise it’s propped up to be, we get that from the glimpse in the original film, but to have gender roles be a significant narrative catalyst but not use the women more in the story (especially Layne who is never gives less than 100% but is woefully under used here) seems strange. Perhaps it’s odd to want a comedy that’s examining the patriarchy to, you know, give the women more to do when it’s the men with all the power, but Coming 2 America is really at its best when Layne, Headley, and Nomzamo Mbatha’s Mirembe are on screen. This, in combination with a heavy reliance on callbacks to the original, makes Coming 2 America less substantial as a film on its own terms.
Don’t get me wrong, I laughed my ass off the entire film. The script doesn’t offer fan-service for the sake of it; rather, familiar faces are worked in organically in the same way that the rift between neighboring African countries is inspired by unresolved tensions established in the first film. There are even new faces with old connections, which only the most observant fans will pick up on. Frankly, it’s these moments that make me miss the theaters all the more as Coming 2 America would be the perfect theatrical experience, so long as the audience are all fans of the first. The eruption of laughter, the excitement to revisit Zamunda, the shock and surprises of the film would become all the better as the audience shares the joy and feeds on it. Building off of this, Brewer captures the feel of Landis’s direction without mimicking, so that Coming 2 America is far more modern in appearance by comparison. Though she, too, didn’t work on the original, Oscar-winner Ruth E. Carter (Black Panther) rejoins Brewer and Murphy from their time on Dolemite to dress the entire cast and, holy hell, the looks of this cast are beyond memorable. The ornate outfits of the Royal Joffer family are gorgeous, as are all the outfits worn by any of the Africa-based character. Bopoto, Idi, and Izzi come from a more militaristic society and are dressed as such, with outfits that are restrictive, clean, and yet ostentatious. The servants are not given as revealing costumes are before, yet their colors and design make them unique and refined. Speaking of servants, make sure to pay attention close attention at the start of the film for a familiar actor from the original film who has gone on to a wonderful career of her own. Speaking of familiar faces, in addition to all the ones you remember, there’re some new ones, including a scene-stealing Snipes whose recent, and best, work seems to come in partnership with Brewer.
Ultimately, Coming 2 America is a blast of a film. It leans more into the comedy than grounded nature of the original, but you can’t blame Murphy and company for waiting to have some fun. The story is as sweet as the first, pays homage to the original in ways creative and ridiculous, and is the kind of pseudo-carefree romp that feels like a balm for the soul. Coming 2 America may not clear your skin, pay your taxes, or get you that promotion, but it will make you feel like you’ve just spent 109 minutes with old friends, the kind of old friends that you can just pick up and carry on with as though no time has passed between you. It certainly helps that all involved, new cast and old, are having an absolute ball. That feeling, that energy, just jumps right off the screen and into your living room. It truly is another beautiful day in Zamunda!
Available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video March 5th, 2021.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.