COMING TO AMERICA
June 29, 1988
Budget: $39 million
Opening Weekend: $21.4 million
Domestic Total Gross: $128.2 million
Worldwide Total Gross: $288.8 million
Metacritic Score: 47
Coming To America was too adult a comedy for me to see in my childhood. I don’t think I was even aware of its existence. It remained a blind spot for me until just a few years ago, when Becky brought it to our attention.
The movie plays out as an R-rated fairy tale, with about the same level of complexity as a Disney movie. The plot is simple, and only the most superficial conflicts stand in the way of a happy ending. The story is essentially an excuse for a lot of amusing things to happen.
And they do! As a comedy, Coming To America works well. It’s consistently engaging, and several of the jokes are worthy of an adult audience. (It doesn’t go for cheap humor very often.) That’s exactly what made me want to like this story more — with Akeem having to genuinely take some hard knocks in 1980s New York City. It’s funny that Akeem is probably the most content garbage collector ever, but maybe somewhere along the line, he could be… kind of upset about something? Eddie Murphy’s Akeem is charming and easy to watch, but he’s basically a character suited for sketch comedy rather than his own movie. The fact that the movie works overall is a testament to the writing and performances. The comedy is episodic, but at least most of those episodes are funny. My only real complaint is when the story completely grinds to a halt to focus on irrelevant side characters who are also played by Eddie Murphy.
These days, comedies featuring mostly (or entirely) black casts tend to be marketed toward African-Americans. I don’t know a lot of white people who check out a Best Man, Barbershop, or Think Like A Man movie in theaters (which might very well be our mistake). In fact, it was only this past year that one of these comedies truly broke out into the mainstream — Girls Trip. The movie has nothing to do with race. Other recent hits with largely black casts, like Get Out, Hidden Figures, Straight Outta Compton, and 12 Years A Slave, make a point of being about race. It’s refreshing to see an African-American-driven film that would barely change if its characters were any other race.
Maybe the 1980s and 1990s did a better job of offering us this. At least back then studios could put black people in a mid-budget movie and market it toward mainstream audiences — they don’t make mid-budget movies anymore, every movie is a $200 million gamble, and studios worry that an all black (or all anything, except white) cast won’t play overseas. In 1988, somehow, Coming To America seemed less groundbreaking than it does in 2018. It’s a shame that we even have to mention how unusual it is to see an almost entirely black cast heading a film that cost almost $40 million to make and grossed nearly $300 million worldwide.
The film’s African fantasia doesn’t pander to stereotypes about saints or savages, thank heavens. The ultra-privileged royals of Zamunda behave like slight exaggerations of ultra-privileged royals anywhere, which again speaks to the fact that this comedy would work in any culture. Do I wish Coming To America had a slightly more grounded story that actually used Akeem’s trip to America as more than a punchline? Would I have liked the film to actually say something about American culture? Coming To America is a grab bag of gags — most of them work, but they don’t ever seem to add up to any particular point of view. A prince who has had everything done for him his entire life visits New York City, USA, where black men aren’t so often extended a helping hand. Coming To America wouldn’t have had to stretch too far to add a little more substance to Akeem’s travels, and I’m not sure their return to Africa Fantasyland really qualifies as a satisfying ending.
That doesn’t much matter if you’re watching for chuckles, which is the case with most people. Coming To America sounds like the title of a film that has something to say about this place, but most of that is lost amidst a super breezy story. I can’t hold it against Coming To America, because for all the thinness of its plot, it carves a place of its own amidst 80s comedies. I just wish the writing at the story level was as crafty as its individual scenes — that’s what makes a true comedy classic, in my book.