Why Eddie Murphy returned to Zamunda for ‘Coming 2 America’
Years ago, Eddie Murphy started noticing more and more fans quoting lines from his 1988 hit comedy “Coming to America,” the rom-com fairytale in which his charming Prince Akeem of the fictional African nation of Zamunda defies tradition to find true love in Queens, N.Y. He noticed as people flocked to pop-up replica McDowell’s restaurants, and when even Beyoncé and Jay-Z paid homage, donning costumes a la Zamundan royalty one Halloween.
“I’ve done over 40 movies in the last 40 years, and I’ve had movies that have been more commercially successful than ‘Coming to America,’ but I don’t have any movie that became this cult movie,” Murphy said over video chat last month. “No one dresses up like Axel Foley for Halloween.”
Decades had passed since the original film, directed by John Landis, introduced audiences to Zamunda, Akeem, his love Lisa (Shari Headley), loyal aide Semmi (Arsenio Hall) and fan favorites like the old-timers of the My-T-Sharp barbershop and singer Randy Watson and his band Sexual Chocolate. Released at the height of Murphy’s movie star ascent between installments of his “48 Hrs.” and “Beverly Hills Cop” films, the $288-million worldwide box office hit also marked the first time the actor played multiple roles in a single movie, a signature he’d make his own in later pictures.
But the producer-star needed good reason and good timing to come back to “Coming to America” after stepping back from the spotlight. Enter Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Or rather, the de-aged Schwarzenegger that Murphy caught while watching the 2015 reboot “Terminator Genisys,” inspiring a way to bridge the decades since the original film. “That’s when we got the dot to connect,” said Murphy. “If we take that technology and make me and Arsenio [Hall] young, we can continue the scene in the club. Then the whole story just started writing itself.”
Styled as “Coming 2 America” and streaming starting March 5 on Amazon, the sequel catches up with Murphy’s Akeem, now poised to inherit the throne. Under pressure to name a male heir despite having three capable daughters (KiKi Layne, Bella Murphy and Akiley Love), he learns he has a long-lost son (Jermaine Fowler) and comes to America, again, to find him — only to bring a colorful crew of neighborhood characters back to Zamunda.
Written by original “Coming to America” scribes Barry W. Blaustein and David Sheffield along with Kenya Barris (with a story credited to Blaustein, Sheffield and Justin Kanew), the sequel’s sprawling ensemble is packed with new faces and returning favorites — including Murphy and Hall in multiple roles — and star-studded cameos. When it came to finding a director, Murphy didn’t have to look far.
Craig Brewer had impressed him with his handling of their 2019 Rudy Ray Moore biopic “Dolemite Is My Name,” a long-gestating passion project starring Murphy as the late comedian that would go on to garner critical acclaim and return Murphy to the awards spotlight. The pair tuned in remotely from Los Angeles and flashed back to the moment, after an early screening of “Dolemite Is My Name,” when Murphy turned to Brewer and said, “So — ‘Coming to America 2’...”
After keeping a low profile for more than a decade, the comedian is back in the spotlight with Oscar buzz, a return to stand-up, movie sequels and more
Eddie, at what point did you approach Craig to direct “Coming 2 America”? What had you seen from working with him on “Dolemite Is My Name” that made you think, “This is the guy?”
Murphy: He had just nailed “Dolemite Is My Name.” He cracked it over the fence and did such an amazing job. When this script came together just at the tail end of that movie, it was like, “Craig has to do this.”
Brewer: I remember the night that we had a screening of “Dolemite” at Netflix — Eddie was there, Arsenio [Hall] was there, we had a bunch of friends and family, and I think John Singleton was there. Eddie was walking to his car [after] and he said, “So — ‘Coming to America 2.’ Are you interested in that?” I remember Arsenio walking by and going, “Whoa, wait. Is that a thing now. Are we doing that?”
That was the first time I’d heard about it. Then we worked on the scripts with Kenya [Barris] and myself and Eddie, and there was this one day when we were very happy with where the script was ... and we wanted to move forward fairly quickly. It really was right when we got “Dolemite” in the can and started having screenings of it that we were already in prep and already casting.
Appreciation for the original movie has grown in recent years. There was a McDowell’s pop-up a few years ago in Los Angeles that had people lining up down the block to get into.
Murphy: It was great. They had “Sexual Chocolate” milkshakes on their menu, they had a McDowell’s menu. It was a trip. I’ve done over 40 movies in the last 40 years and I’ve had movies that have been more commercially successful than “Coming to America.” But I don’t have any movie that became this cult movie.
Brewer: There was this day when Tyrese [Gibson] came by the set — he’s friends with me and he’s friends with [costume designer] Ruth Carter. I put James Earl Jones’ original crown from “Coming to America” in his hands, and Tyrese was genuinely moved. It’s something I try to explain even to my kids today about “Coming to America.” They’ve grown up and experienced movies “Black Panther” and all these movies, but “Coming to America” back in the day was a different experience for a lot of people that had not existed, really.
Murphy: Even today you could say “‘Black Panther’ and all these movies,” but then you think, “What ‘all these movies?’” There are not a lot of movies with an all-Black cast that are successful and connect all around the world. Usually, when we tell our stories, they’re successful in the States. On the other side of the world, they don’t care about the racial stuff or social injustice. We tell our stories, lots of times it’s heavy themes at the movie theater, because of our history in this country. We’ve got a dark, dark, dark history, so when it comes out on the screen, lots of times, it’s really heavy. “Coming to America” was none of that.
Sidney Poitier said, “You are not Morgan. And you are not Denzel. You are a breath of fresh air. Don’t “f—” with that.”
— Eddie Murphy
Representation was not talked about back then the way it is today. When did you realize you could have that kind of impact?
Murphy: From the very beginning. I’ve always done movies that worked all around the world; if they worked here, they worked everywhere. I don’t want to seem like I’m derogating these other films. My films have always been escapism; it’s not heavy stuff. Years ago, when they were talking about doing “Malcolm X” — at first, Norman Jewison was going to direct, and they were going to do “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” from the book, and there was talk about me playing Alex Haley — I was thinking about doing it, and I was having dinner and Sidney Poitier was there. We started talking about it.
Sidney Poitier said, “You are not Morgan. And you are not Denzel. You are a breath of fresh air. Don’t “f—” with that.” What he meant was, “People go to your movies to have fun, and it’s escapism, it’s not heavy, you can go in any direction. Don’t “f—” with it and go heavy on them.” And my movies have been like that. I’ve always done movies that are not about the Black dilemma, no actors running up to the camera screaming, “Wake up!” in the lens — there’s none of that stuff. The themes have to be universal themes in my movies.
“Coming 2 America” in many ways reflects how times have changed. That lesson is central to what Akeem is learning himself from his relationships with his son and his daughters, a generation trying to bring change to this fictional kingdom.
Brewer: As we were cutting the movie [last spring], I was here while the protests were happening at Fairfax and 3rd. As we were working on the movie, the movie gained more relevance in that lens. I was in high school when I first saw the movie, and I now have kids in high school that are going to be seeing “Coming to America 2.” Akeem is dealing with the same thing. And so much of what the movie deals with is, do we need to listen to our children? Do we need to remember some of our ideals from when we were younger through our children, and youth, and let go some of those traditions [that exist] just for the sake of keeping traditions going?
As much as I knew we were making entertainment, there definitely were moments when it was like this is oddly landing at a time when maybe we not only need to see some old friends that are going to make us laugh, but we maybe need to embrace these themes that the first “Coming to America” had, and that this “Coming 2 America” has.
Eddie, you also revisited some of your celebrated “Saturday Night Live” characters when you hosted the show again in 2019. How have your relationships with your iconic characters evolved over the years?
Murphy: I don’t have a relationship with those characters. For me, when I go on a set and they say, “Action!” I do the character. When they say, “Cut,” then the character is there. I literally turn it on and off. I don’t have a relationship with them. Those are just more of the characters that I do or have done.
Brewer: I think what’s funnier that I’ve seen, even when Eddie did “Saturday Night Live,” was how much my 13-year-old daughter, who was not around when there was Buckwheat and was not around when any of these characters came along.
Murphy: Buckwheat is from the ’30s.
Brewer: But your Buckwheat… all those things that are classics for people of my generation, I was surprised at how much when Eddie did “Saturday Night Live” [recently] they just blew up on TikTok. My 13-year-old daughter was showing me these clips. We used to videotape “Saturday Night Live” on our Beta machines back in the day, and now these kids have them on their phone and they’re sharing them. You’d think that those characters may be dated, but they’re not, they just keep on entertaining.
Murphy: Because they’re funny. There is no expiration date on funny. Funny is funny. You go watch Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton in black and white — if it was funny then, it’s funny now. It may not be as fun to look at in black and white with no sound, but if it’s funny then, it’s funny now. That’s been my experience. I’ve never, ever, ever seen something that really cracked me up and then years later, “That used to make me laugh, but it’s not funny at all now.” If it’s funny, it’s funny forever.
If it’s funny, it’s funny forever.
— Eddie Murphy
Is there a limit to how many characters you have the energy to play in the span of a single film?
Murphy: I’ve done it so many times. It’s harder than working on a normal movie, but it’s not as hard as I would imagine it is on most actors that don’t do it. I’ve done so many movies where I’ve done this makeup and multiple characters, it’s not as hard as it is on other people.
Pre-pandemic, you had a plan, Eddie: You’d make “Coming 2 America,” then return to stand-up. Is that still in the works?
Murphy: It was going to be “Dolemite,” then “Saturday Night Live,” then “Coming 2 America” and then stand-up, and then the pandemic put the brakes on everything. But as soon as the world is back to normal, I’m going to try to do some stand-up again. If this stuff hadn’t hit, this last year I would have been in the clubs working on my act. All of that got sidelined.
And have you two already discussed making a “Coming 3 America?”
Murphy: We both have ideas. I have an idea that doesn’t take place for 16 years. But he said he has an idea, and if he has an idea that’s good, it can happen…
Brewer: I’ve been surprised how many people after seeing it have asked that question. Look, it’s a very interesting family that’s come together [in the movie]…
Murphy: The very last thing Akeem says is, “I will bring Queens to Zamunda,” and I’m like… that’s a movie.
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