This Underrated ‘80s Rom-Com Totally Deserved an Oscar—Here’s Why
On Jan. 11, 2019, I stumbled upon the best news.
I learned that a sequel for Coming to America—the classic rom-com that introduced me to "Soul Glo" and Oha's powerful rendition of “She’s your queen to be”—was officially a go and my nostalgic heart fluttered. Once again, I'd not only get to experience the beauty and splendor of Zamunda, but I'd also get to see more of Akeem and Semmi.
So, how did I celebrate this good news? By watching the original movie for the millionth time, of course. But before I get into the specifics of why I'm so obsessed, allow me to offer some background about the film.
Coming to America, which was released in 1988, follows a wealthy African prince named Akeem Joffer (Eddie Murphy). After being presented with a bride that he doesn't love for an arranged marriage, Akeem leaves his home country of Zamunda and travels to Queens (the one in NYC) to find himself a new bride, with the help of his trusty best friend, Semmi (Arsenio Hall).
The Cinderella-esque classic grossed a total of nearly $300 million, making it one of the highest-grossing films at the U.S. box office in 1988. But despite its commercial success (and the fact that it out-performed popular titles like Beetlejuice and Die Hard), it didn't sit well with most critics. The Hollywood Reporter's Duane Byrge called it "generally tame and sappy," while Washington Post's Hal Hinson wrote, "Murphy seems to have set his sights on the lowest prize imaginable. He aspires to blandness."
Now, as someone who has enjoyed this film on several occasions, I can assure you that Coming to America is far from sappy and bland. No, it's not your quintessential Disney fairytale, but it features a groundbreaking storyline, a strong cast and clever satire, which, quite frankly, makes it Oscar-worthy in my book.
Here, five reasons why this underrated gem is still a must-watch (and why it should've gotten an Academy Award, IMHO).
1. The cast is phenomenal
I'd say that the talented lineup is one of the biggest reasons why Coming to America still resonates with so many people today. There's Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall, both of whom played not one, but four roles. In addition to Prince Akeem, Murphy plays a barber shop owner named Clarence, a customer named Saul and a band leader named Randy Watson. Meanwhile, Hall nails his roles as Semmi, Morris the barber, a seductive girl and the spirited Reverend Brown.
Other cast members include John Amos (Cleo McDowell), James Earl Jones (King Jaffe Joffer), Shari Headley (Lisa McDowell) and the late Madge Sinclair (Queen Aoleon).
2. Fearless heroines, FTW
I absolutely love that this film includes powerful female leads who refuse to tip-toe around their male counterparts. And unfortunately, it's an aspect of the film that I think is often overlooked.
Let's start with Akeem's mother, Queen Aoleon. Not only does she confront the king and speak her mind, but she also carries an air of authority without having to say a word, and I love that. I love how she embodies strength and grace throughout the film, and I especially love that she encourages her son to follow his heart. I mean, had it not been for her, then Prince Akeem and Lisa would never have gotten their happy ending.
And then, of course, there's Lisa, Akeem's intelligent and outspoken dream girl. Rather than giving audiences the typical damsel in distress, Coming to America gives us a strong-willed and passionate heroine who isn't afraid to stand up to the controlling men in her life.
3. There are tons of quotable moments
It's impossible to watch Coming to America without cracking up at the great one-liners. For instance, there's Akeem's laugh-worthy requirements for his future wife: "I want a woman that will arouse my intellect as well as my loins." And then there's King Jaffe Joffer's unique definition of love, when he says, "My son, there is a very fine line between love and nausea.”
Keep in mind that these are just the tip of the iceberg, since several characters have their fair share of laugh-out-loud moments. As Amos once put it, "Everybody has a favorite line from Coming to America, from 'Donations! Donations!' to 'How come she always get the good ones?' to 'Freeze, you diseased rhinoceros pizzle!'"
4. Soul Glo
If you've yet to see this movie, then allow me to introduce you to the iconic fake commercial that is Soul Glo. In one scene, Prince Akeem and Semmi are confronted with this ad through a storefront window while walking through the streets of New York. Emblazoned across multiple screens are images of a man and woman with really bad perms, but after using Soul Glo, their hair transforms into "silky-smooth" Jheri curls that are practically dripping with the product.
Yes, it's a classic example of over-the-top marketing, but it's brilliant, it's fun, and it's incredibly satisfying to sing along to "souuuuuuuul glo!" Even Nile Rodgers, who composed the original track, described it as his "single proudest moment." And not surprisingly, the fake ad has become a cultural phenomenon, inspiring a number of memes, sketches and songs, from Karlton Humes's short tribute to B.o.B.'s sampling of the track in his 2019 song, "Soul Glo."
5. It helped pave the way for Marvel's 'Black Panther'
If you've seen Coming to America and Marvel's Black Panther, then you've probably noticed the striking similarities between both films, from their feminist female leads to the bravery of their central characters, Prince Joffer and King T'Challa. However, the clearest parallel can be seen between the fictional nations of Zamunda and Wakanda. Both challenge common misconceptions about African nations, introducing viewers to a world where Africans wear elaborate costumes, roam in opulent palaces and have access to an abundance of natural resources.
It wouldn't be a stretch to say that Black Panther pulled some of its inspiration from Coming to America, one of the first major films that dared to highlight Black royalty. But as for Coming to America's sequel, Murphy made it clear that they have no intention of turning modern-day Zamunda into a carbon copy of Wakanda. He told IndieWire, "Zamunda is 30 years before Wakanda. Wakanda is a superhero movie. And we’re not trying to compete with a superhero movie, it's aesthetics, the thrill and all that. We’re doing a sequel to this fairy tale that was really, really popular all around the world."
Here's hoping part two will finally earn Murphy and company that much-deserved award.
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