Coming 2 America effectively uses the legacy of Zamunda to expand the narrative space not only of the classic original, but for Black diasporic affinity at large. At the end of the 1988 romantic comedy, the royal marriage of Akeem Joffer (Eddie Murphy) and Lisa McDowell (Shari Headley) further symbolically enmeshed the interconnected experience between African-Americans and Black Africans. In this sequel, the legacy of that union is explored through the gendered opportunities of Prince Akeem’s lineage and the pressure he faces to determine his royal successor—all while appeasing the tyrannical leader of Zamunda’s neighboring country Nextdoria, General Izzi (Wesley Snipes). Coming 2 America is an exciting follow-up that’s ensemble cast and increasingly complex musings mostly outweigh its shortcomings.
In present-day Zamunda, Prince Akeem enjoys the company of his wife, his three badass warrior daughters and his dear albeit mischievous dude-in-waiting Semmi (Arsenio Hall). But when dying, nearly expired King Jaffe Joffer (James Earl Jones) reiterates that Akeem’s eldest daughter, Princess Meeka (KiKi Layne, Beale Street! Beale Street!) will not be eligible to inherit the throne because she is a woman, Akeem and Semmi return to Queens to find Akeem’s long-lost bastard son, Lavelle Junson (Jermaine Fowler). Of course, hijinks ensue along the way. Semmi and Akeem must fumble around a new New York stuffed less with mustard-colored cabs and more with rideshares. They become acquainted with an increasingly gentrified Queens, visit some familiar friends and meet new members of Akeem’s extended family as they court Lavelle.
This film’s greater comedic elements come from these familiar moments of cross-cultural tension and new intergenerational differences. Tracy Morgan, who plays Lavelle’s lovingly brash Uncle Reem, lightly spars with Semmi and Akeem about how to properly mentor Lavelle during his princely training. When Lavelle struggles to embody the Zamudan royal gait, Uncle Reem helps him develop his high-roller, more authentically Lavelle walk. What is a crisis of personality is remedied through a pep-talk and a silly sequence. Moments of tension or confusion are enhanced with humor rather than the funniness undercutting the film’s dramatic elements. This manages to make Coming 2 America feel light while still centering familial strain and heavy diasporic conflicts that persist between differing Black communities at the heart of the film. When Lavelle finally arrives in Zamunda, he reckons with what it means to now know his father, to potentially become a prince and to be legibly African. It’s a compelling and complicated emotional journey that forces Lavelle—like his father before him—to navigate his Blackness in a new, vibrant Black environment.
And Coming 2 America certainly showcases an undoubtedly vibrant Black environment. Between the film’s mixed Afrobeats, R&B and rap soundtrack, sweeping nature shots of Zamundan brush and the colorful print-heavy fashion flare of Zamundan attire, the sights and sounds of Coming 2 America are ensnaring to the senses. There are high-energy dance sequences and parties galore that showcase Ruth E. Carter’s superb costuming choices and Craig Brewer’s energetic direction.
While the pressures to inherit the decadence and glory of Zamunda results in some impressive dramatic delivery from Fowler, his comedic chops shine through in every scene and anchor the film in a grounded place of play. Lavelle has bursts of frustration, no doubt. But he also runs from a CGI lion and bonds with his younger sisters. It is incredibly entertaining to watch Fowler’s talents—showcased in earlier films like Sorry to Bother You and Judas and the Black Messiah—given space to shine alongside the likes of comedic titans like Leslie Jones, Murphy and Hall.
Coming 2 America also uses the squabbles around Lavelle’s ostensible birthright to evaluate the gendered traps of tradition. Throughout the film, women characters are given ample room to place pressure on social norms and are rewarded, not punished for, their resistance. Lavelle’s mother Mary (Jones) is taken care of (wink, wink) by a royal bather, where in the original film it appeared to be the exclusive responsibility of women bathers to clean Prince Akeem’s “royal penis.” Additionally, Mary enthusiastically befriends Lisa and the two even drunkenly sing Digital Underground’s “Humpty Dance” together. Their connection is engaging and refreshing to see, especially considering how often Black women in on-screen extended families are pitted against one another for laughs.
For further evidence of Coming 2 America’s feminist aims, notice the stark difference between Zamundan royal groomer Miremebe (Nomzamo Mbatha) and General Izzi’s astoundingly hot, yet socially conditioned pick-me daughter Bopoto (Teyana Taylor). The original film’s message that the ideas and identities of women should be championed—not their capacity to be subservient to men (embarrassing)—is epitomized through the differing actions of these women. While Coming 2 America heavily focuses upon Lavelle’s princely tests and Akeem’s kingship, the women in the film are not given two-bit subplots.
Although the film’s aesthetics, themes and performances mostly impress, there are still some troubling plot points that slightly deflate the film. General Izzi’s ultimate comeuppance after his characterization as a child soldier-rearing wardog is unsatisfying. It reinforces the film’s meditation on the political power of women, but in a way that contradicts his initial characterization as a ruthless, vindictive guy. Additionally, Prince Akeem’s motivations for finding Lavelle are intermittently unclear. Before King Joffer’s death, it is suggested that without a male heir to Zamunda, Izzi would easily threaten Prince Akeem’s life and by proxy the longevity of the Zamundan kingdom. But there are moments where it is difficult to gauge if Akeem’s search for Lavelle is truly about Zamunda…or about Akeem’s desperation to evade an assassination attempt. One is undoubtedly connected to the other so it’s mostly fine that we assume Akeem wants to be a good king and that’s why he heeds his father’s advice at the expense of his daughter. But Akeem’s emotional growth in the film overall might have felt more impactful were his primary motivator not so murky. (Kanye shrug.)
Additionally, the flashback sequences in the film—the deaging CG ranging from Gemini Man to The Irishman quality—insinuate that Prince Akeem was drugged before engaging with Mary and ultimately producing Lavelle. In fact, the repressed memory of the encounter is only brought to his attention when Semmi, his father and Baba, a witch doctor also played by Hall, tell Prince Akeem about it. Prince Akeem’s insistence that he thought he was attacked by a wild boar, not having sex with a woman, is played for laughs, but it is definitely disconcerting considering the history of abuse spewed specifically at Leslie Jones. Dark-skinned Black women in general are frequently dehumanized and hypersexualized through animal comparisons—not to mention that the film implies that, because this ravenous woman initiated the substance-induced encounter, serious harm couldn’t have transpired. It leaves a bad taste in a film that’s otherwise a light and forward-thinking affair.
Coming 2 America is a deeply fun, goofy, incredibly cast Blackity-Black movie. Viewers be warned of the emotional whiplash they might receive from the returning likes of James Earl Jones and John Amos, as well as the steady stream of Black artists and icons from across the diaspora who make surprise appearances in the film. Coming 2 America achieves exactly what an effective sequel should: It reinforces themes from the original film while offering new, intriguing points of tension, nodding to old gags in a way that rewards fluent fans without alienating newbies.
Director: Craig Brewer
Writer: Barry W. Blaustein, David Sheffield, Kenya Barris
Stars: Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall, Shari Headley, Jermain Fowler, Leslie Jones, Wesley Snipes
Release Date: March 5th, 2021 (Amazon Prime)
Adesola Thomas is a screenwriter and culture writer. She loves talking about Annette Benning’s performance in 20th Century Women and making lasagna. You can follow her on Twitter.