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Film / Coming to America

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Prince Akeem: I want a woman who will arouse my intellect as well as my loins!
Semmi: ...but where will you find such a woman?
Prince Akeem: In America!

Coming to America is a 1988 comedy film directed by John Landis and starring the comedic duo of Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall (before his show).

Heir to the throne of Zamunda, Prince Akeem Joffer (Eddie Murphy) spends his days being pampered and spoiled by all those who serve him; he is not even allowed to dress himself or tie his own shoes. This lifestyle has grown frustrating for the young prince, especially when it comes to his future bride being chosen for him without his say. Akeem implores his father, King Jaffe Joffer (James Earl Jones), to allow him to choose his own wife, but the monarch declares that the prince cannot defy tradition and insists that the courtship ceremony continue that evening on Akeem's 21st birthday.

That night, Akeem meets his future bride. She is beautiful, obedient and completely unable to think for herself. Despite his best efforts, Akeem cannot convince her to act as anything other than a mindless slave. He resolves that he will find his own wife; a woman with grace, elegance, taste and culture who loves him for his personality, while still having the kind of strength of will he can respect — a woman suitable for a king. Tricking his father into letting him travel before getting married, Akeem takes his best friend and servant, Semmi (Arsenio Hall), and heads out to find his future queen. Never having been to North America, the duo decide to conduct their search in the most logical place they can think of: Queens, New York City.

Akeem and Semmi pose as poor African college students while they conduct their search, but being naïve to the way America works they can only attract women with serious emotional problems. Akeem is almost ready to give up until, one night, he attends a rally where he lays eyes on Lisa McDowell. She is his dream in every way and Akeem is convinced that he has found his future Queen, but there's only one problem: she's already taken...

Considered something of a Spiritual Successor to Trading Places, also directed by John Landis and starring Eddie Murphy. The story was conceived by Eddie Murphy and Art Buchwald (though Murphy was given sole credit for its conception in the credits, something that Buchwald wasn't too happy about). It enjoyed both domestic and worldwide success when it was released, even grabbing a couple of Academy Award nominations for costumes and makeup. The film is also notable for being the first in which Eddie Murphy plays more than one role, a trend that he would continue throughout the rest of his career.

In 2019, Eddie Murphy confirmed that a sequel was in the works (titled Coming 2 America), which was released to Amazon Prime on March 5, 2021.

This film contains examples of:

  • Abhorrent Admirer:
    • Subverted at Akeem's ceremony where he meets his bride-to-be. When the bride's father first introduces his daughter, a large woman pushes her way through the audience, but it turns out she's also only introducing the bride. Akeem finds the beautiful Extreme Doormat who is supposed to be his bride just as abhorrent. Played straight in the Terrible Interviewees Montage, with a woman, played by Arsenio Hall, who "want[s] to tear [Akeem]" apart as well as Semmi, making him Spit Take.
    • If his Breaking the Fourth Wall at the end is any indication, Darryl doesn't seem to be overly pleased at being the subject of Lisa's sister's amorous intentions.
  • Alter Kocker: Played by Eddie Murphy, of all people.
  • Alternate History: A Type 2 on the Sliding Scale of Alternate History Plausibility.
    • At one point, James Earl Jones remarked on how his royal marriage had been arranged. So the codified Zamundan monarchy went back at least three generations. That means Zamunda was a monarchy at least as far back as the end of World War I. Once the Ottoman Empire royalty was broken, old-style monarchy slowly disappeared from Darkest Africa. But in this world, Zamunda not only survived amongst post-colonial dictatorships and nascent plutocracies, it flourished. And it retained a strict European-style royal court, which held real power. Arsenio Hall may be a bit of a Upper-Class Twit and a Right-Hand Hottie, but he expects to be the right hand of the king of an entire country. That's some Borgia-level shit.
    • On the other hand, there are some hints in the film - such as Zamunda using the pound as its currency, Akeem and Lisa's wedding ceremony being a Christian one (which would imply that the Royal Family and hence most of the country was Christian; this isn't impossible, as Congo, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi all traditionally have Catholic monarchies), Zamundan police and soldiers wearing British-style uniforms, the mentioned popularity of soccer - that suggest that Zamunda was influenced by British rule. It may very well have been a British protectorate at one point, like Lesotho, Botswana, Swaziland and Uganda, for example. Lesotho and Swaziland are also two of the three remaining monarchies in Africa (Morocco is the third).
  • Animal Reaction Shot: Dottie, the little dog at Cleo's place, even giving the audience Aside Glance.
  • Aside Glance: See Breaking the Fourth Wall.
  • Beta Couple: Darryl and Lisa.
  • Big Applesauce / The Big Rotten Apple The better part of this film takes place in Queens Village, New York, said to be the poorest neighborhood in Queens, at a time when nobody made a fuss over the New York City subway cars being covered in graffiti. In addition, Akeem and Semmi work a minimum wage job and stay at a tenement in order to maintain their cover.
  • Bland-Name Product:
    • McDowell's, a knock-off of McDonald's. It's Lampshaded wonderfullynote .
      Cleo: Look... me and the McDonald's people got this little misunderstanding. See, they're McDonald's... I'm McDowell's. They got the Golden Arches, mine is the Golden Arcs. They got the Big Mac, I got the Big Mick. We both got two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles and onions, but their buns have sesame seeds. My buns have no seeds.
    • Cleo is actually seen reading from a McDonald's operations manual.
  • Blatant Lies: The taxi cab driver who brings Akeem and Semmi from JFK Airport to Queens isn't fooled by Akeem's claim that they are ordinary African college students since the two of them are wearing expensive furs, jewelry, and have several crates of luggage.
  • Bowdlerised: The film has been shown on TV on channels such as Comedy Central and ABC Family with much of its cruder elements toned down.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall:
    • Briefly; after convincing his empty-headed bride to start barking like a dog and hop up and down like an imbecile, Akeem stares at the camera in exasperation.
    • Semmi does this too, after hearing Akeem proclaim that a view from a run-down apartment in Queens is "Life. Real life! A thing we have been denied for far too long."
    • And Dottie, the little dog at Cleo's home.
  • Bride and Switch: When Akeem goes back home, it turns out Lisa came over to marry him.
  • Bulungi: Zamunda.
  • Burger Fool: Semmi and Akeem. (Akeem wanted to find a girl who would like him, not the Crown Prince)
  • Celebrity Paradox: Saul, the old Jewish guy in the Barbershop, calls Akeem "Kunta Kinte". John Amos, who plays Cleo McDowell, played old Kunta Kinte in Roots. Furthermore, Madge Sinclair (Queen Aoleon) played Kunta's wife Bell Reynolds while James Earl Jones played their descendant Alex Haley in Roots: The Next Generations.
  • Chalk Outline: Parodied. When Akeem and Semmi are shown into the room that their landlord "used to rent to a blind man", we see a tape outline of the blind man's body — along with outlines of his seeing-eye dog and his cane.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Akeem flips a coin with his image on it in order to choose between traveling to New York or Los Angeles to find his bride. Later, Cleo shows Lisa some more money with Akeem's image as proof of him being a prince. "When I say the boy has his own money, I mean he has his own money!"
  • Chekhov's Skill: At the beginning, Semmi and Akeem spar with staffs, with Semmi taunting Akeem throughout. These become important in thwarting the hold-up at the McDowell's restaurant.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: "Fuck you, fuck you, and fuck you! Who's next?
  • Comically Missing the Point: King Jaffe Joffer does this throughout the movie. For instance, after angering Lisa and Cleo McDowell:
    King Jaffe: I know you have been inconvenienced, and I am prepared to compensate you. Shall we say one million American dollars?
    Cleo: (furiously) No way!
    King Jaffe: Very well then, two million.
  • Continuity Cameo: The Duke brothers from Trading Places. They're homeless and broke now until Akeem gives them a huge wad of cash. Curiously, neither seems to notice that Akeem looks just like Billy Ray Valentine.
  • Costume Porn: The fashions of Zamunda are incredible.
  • Covers Always Lie: While the poster (which was subsequently re-used for the VHS and DVD covers) might give the impression that the film's main setting is Manhattan, that part of New York City only appears briefly, late on in the plot, with the primary setting being Queens.
  • Credits Gag:
    • The end credits give thanks to the Zamundan Film Commission.
    • Jim Abrahams of Airplane! fame apparently had a cameo that was cut, because he's credited as "Face on the Cutting Room Floor".
  • Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass:
    • Though it's established early on that both Akeem and Semmi are excellent stick fighters, everyone in America views them this way until the holdup scene.
    • Cleo McDowell, who goes from Bumbling Dad to Papa Wolf the instant he realizes King Jaffe has insulted Lisa.
  • Description Cut: After foiling the robbery, Cleo tells Akeem and Semmi this:
    Cleo: Say, leave Sunday night open. I'm having a little get-together at my house.
    Akeem: (to Semmi) You see? It is working! He has accepted us as equals!
    (cut to Akeem and Semmi standing outside in the cold as valets)
  • Establishing Character Moment: At the Black Awareness rally, when Lisa asks the audience to donate, Darryl, Lisa's boyfriend immediately passes the donation bin without donating, whereas Akeem immediately donates (albeit a much larger sum than he intended, since he's so intrigued by her).
  • Exact Words:
    Cleo: He got his own money and, baby, when I tell you he's got his own money, I mean the boy has gotten his own money!
    (He hands Lisa a Zamunda banknote with Akeem's picture on it.)
    • When Akeem tries to make his arranged bride more independent by ordering her to not do everything he says, she refuses. Doing exactly what he told her to do by refusing to not do whatever he told her to do.
  • Extreme Doormat: Akeem's arranged bride, who hops on one foot and barks like a dog when he tells her to. Akeem is deeply unimpressed and decides to seek out a wife with an actual brain instead.
  • Feet-First Introduction: During King Jaffe's grand entrance with his motorcade in Queens, he's shown feet first stepping on the rose petals his servant girls throw down wherever he goes.
  • Fish out of Water: Akeem and Semmi are completely unaware of how America works.
  • Flyover Country: Lampshaded.
    Semmi: [looking at America on a globe] The land is so big. The choices so infinite. Where shall we go: L.A. or New York?
  • Food and Body Comparison: Semmi hears about Akeem's hope to find a wife who is more than just an Extreme Doormat. He offers up his own, less charitable, opinion.
    Semmi: You're the heir to the throne of Zamunda. Your wife need only have a pretty face, a firm backside, and big breasts like casaba melons.
  • For Want of a Nail: Akeem and Semmi wind up in Queens through a simple flip of a coin (the other option was Los Angeles).
  • Foreshadowing: During the wedding, while Akeem is understandably upset, Semmi can barely restrain a happy smile. He obviously knows that's Lisa under the veil.
  • Giftedly Bad: Randy Watson and Sexual Chocolate.
    Sweets: That's boy's good!
    Clarence: Mmm, good and terrible.
  • Guttural Growler: Reverend Brown has a very coarse voice.
  • Hidden Depths: You can say anything you want about Cleo McDowell wanting his daughter's boyfriend to be rich rather than poor, but the film gives him the motivation of not wanting his daughters to struggle like he and his wife had to. He also he tells an African King to his face that there's no amount of money that will make it right to have insulted his daughter, rejecting two million dollars.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold:
    • Semmi. Even though he acts selfish and is a hindrance to Akeem throughout most of his courtship with Lisa, his heart is in the right place; while he clearly doesn't want Akeem to be unhappy, he is simultaneously aware King Jaffe would not immediately approve of Lisa as the Royal Bride. Thank heaven all eventually ends well.
    • Cleo McDowell. He can be a bit jerkish to Akeem and Semmi at times, and tries to force his daughter to marry Darryl, but it's only because he doesn't want her to struggle financially like he did. Not to mention he goes into Papa Wolf territory when King Jaffe insults him and his family, and gets even more pissed when Jaffe tries to pay him off.
    • King Jaffe. He genuinely cares for Akeem and wants what is best for his son, but is almost completely unaware of how dismissive and arrogant he can be in his royal duties.
  • Jerkass: Darryl Jenks - an arrogant, self-absorbed, and rather misogynistic Spoiled Brat who thinks money can buy anything.
  • King Incognito: It's the premise of the movie. Akeem's cover is nearly blown at a basketball game, where a Zamundan immigrant recognizes him and bows down to him.
    • He must also work to distract Lisa from seeing a picture of the Royal Family of Zamunda, where he is prominently featured.
  • King of Beasts: Zamunda's flag features a gold lion and King Jaffe wears a lion stole, Nemean Skinning-style.
  • Kiss of Distraction: During Akeem's second date with Lisa, they go to a museum where they see an exhibit about Zamunda, Akeem's home country. But when he sees a photograph of himself as the Prince with his King and Queen parents, he immediately kisses her to keep her from seeing it.
  • Large Ham(s): It would be easier to point out the non-hams. Samuel L. Jackson is probably the hammiest actor in this movie, even more so than Eddie Murphy. And Jackson is only in one scene.
  • Logo Joke: After the Paramount logo assembles, the camera zooms in, flies over the logo, and spends the opening credits flying over the landscape of Zamunda.
  • Madonna-Whore Complex: Lisa is the Madonna—sweet, innocent, virginal—while her sister Patrice is the whore who offers handjobs at basketball games.
  • Marriage Before Romance: King Jaffe and Queen Aoleon. Despite arguing over what's best for Prince Akeem, they both assure him when it's time for his own Arranged Marriage that it is possible that he'll grow to love her like they grew to love each other. Though Akeem would rather marry a woman he actually loves, hence his trip to America.
  • Marry for Love: One of the Prince's main motivations for coming to America.
  • Metaphorgotten: King Jaffe Joffer's lecture about how arranged marriages aren't so bad.
    King Jaffe: So you see, my son, there is a very fine line between love and nausea!
  • Nice Guy:
    • Akeem is polite, humble and respectful to those serve him, his co-workers at McDowell's and the woman he has feelings for.
    • Akeem's mother Aoleon is a Nice Girl: very kind and considerate to everyone, especially those who Jaffe believes are beneath them.
    • So is the polite, friendly and sincere Lisa that Akeem falls for.
  • No Challenge Equals No Satisfaction: This is why Akeem turns down both living in privilege in America and his arranged wife.
    Akeem:I understand, but when I marry, I want the woman to love me for who I am, not because of what I am.
    King Jaffe Joffer: And who are you?
    Akeem: I am a man who has never tied his own shoes.
    King Jaffe Joffer: Wrong! You are a prince who has never tied his own shoes. I tied my own shoes once. It is an overrated experience.
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • Akeem, when he brings Lisa to his apartment for the first time, and finds that Semmi has "fixed it up"... very nearly blowing their cover in the process.
    • Semmi, when he returns to find Lisa's sister Patrice in the revamped apartment; she's come to see Akeem, and is demanding an explanation for how Akeem and Semmi are living so well on a minimum wage. Luckily, Semmi convincingly lies his way out of the situation, which buys him and Akeem time until...
    • Akeem sees flower petals, alerting him that his father is in America looking for him.
    Patrice: Why are you hugging [Akeem]? He's just the servant. (points) He's [Semmi]'s the prince!
    King Jaffe: Who told you that?!
    (Everyone looks at Semmi, who is morbidly frightened)
  • Only One Finds It Fun: During the truly cringe-worthy performance by Randy Watson and Sexual Chocolate, the only one who is amused is Sweets the barber, much to the chagrin of his colleagues.
  • Papa Wolf: Cleo McDowell surprisingly enough. He may want his girls to marry rich guys but insult her and offer to give him money for troubling you and he'll "break a foot off in your royal ass." Plus the fact that he's not a gold digger and genuinely just wants his girls to not have to struggle financially.
  • Parent-Preferred Suitor:
    • Cleo McDowell is supportive of the idea of his daughter Lisa marrying her rich Jerkass boyfriend Darryl, mostly because he had to struggle to get to where he is, and doesn't want his daughter to do the same. As such, he is dismissive of Akeem (who claims to be a goat herder) for catching his daughter's eye, believing that he can't give her the life she deserves. This opinion changes when he learns that Akeem is a prince, with Cleo urging Lisa to make it work with him, and practically screaming in Darryl's face that Lisa doesn't want him.
    • King Jaffe wants his son to marry Imani, the woman who has been arranged to be his bride, and insults Lisa by claiming Akeem sees her as nothing but a fling. His opinion also changes after his wife calls him out for his attitude, and points out that their son is in love.
  • Pimped-Out Dress:
    • The wedding dress at the end, a pink one.
    • The 'Queen to Be's' glittering golden gown with the enormously long train qualifies as well.
  • Precision F-Strike:
    Random person: Hey, fuck you!
    Akeem: YES! YES! FUCK YOU, TOO!
  • Punny Name: "Nexdoria", as the country next door to Zamunda.
  • Rich in Dollars, Poor in Sense: Averted and played straight; although definitely naive, the wealthy Prince Akeem has a good head on his shoulders and adjusts quite well to the life of an American on minimum-wage. However, his lower class servant Semmi, accustomed to the luxuries of the Royal Palace and the privileges of being personal assistant to the prince, spends the movie whining like a Spoiled Brat about everything. It helps that at the beginning of the movie Akeem has dreamed of a life of doing things himself after being pampered his entire life (the guy has never even wiped his own ass!) and thus a life of manual labor is a dream come true for him. This is lampshaded by Lisa who comments that she's never seen someone take so much pride in cleaning a floor as Akeem does. Akeem and Semmi's attitudes are contrasted nicely in an exchange between the two while they are working at McDowell's:
    Semmi: What's not fair is me doing manual labour. (He looks worryingly at his nails) I am badly in need of a manicure.
    Akeem: Oh. Listen to you. "I am badly in need of a manicure". (Semmi motions as if he is about to snap) Were you going to say something? (Semmi, realising he has no other choice, gets back to work)
  • Rich Suitor, Poor Suitor: Subverted, it's Rich Suitor vs. Secretly Richer Suitor Disguised As Poor Suitor.
  • Running Gag: Throughout the movie, references to the ersatz-Jheri-Curl, Soul-Glo, are shown.
  • Scenery Porn: Just look at the intro! They fly over the Paramount logo's mountain, and go over Zamunda to the palace.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: King Jaffe tries to pay off Mr. McDowell for being "inconvenienced." Which only serves to piss him off. (Fortunately, King Jaffe is understanding, and Queen Aoleon is more than willing to tell her husband to put a sock in it by this point.)
  • Screw the Rules, I Make Them!: King Jaffe says that Lisa and Akeem can't possibly get married because it's against tradition, and "Who am I to change it?". His wife looks at him incredulously and says "I thought you were the king." Cue the Happy Ending.
  • Secretly Wealthy: It doesn't get much more secretly wealthy than a crown prince going King Incognito and working at a burger joint.
  • Seinfeldian Conversation: The old men in the barber shop talk about boxers.
  • Self-Made Man: Cleo McDowell grew up in a slum, and was able to start a successful (if obviously plagiarized) restaurant. His attempt to marry Lisa off to a rich boy is so she doesn't have it as hard as he had it.
  • Shout-Out: Akeem says hello to an elephant calf named Babar.
  • Sliding Scale of Shiny Versus Gritty: A major theme of the movie, for both the plot and the comedy.
  • State Visit: King Jaffe Joffer comes to New York City to look for Akeem. True to this trope, King Jaffe is accompanied by much fanfare, and even travels around in a heavily guarded convoy complete with limousine.
  • The Stinger: During the credits, there's a scene where the Alter Kocker tells a joke about a man trying to get a waiter to taste his soup.
    "Ahhh, vadda ya know from funny, ya bastard?"
  • Table Space: Jaffe and his wife sit at one end of a long table, while Akeem sits at the other end. They communicate through an intercom. Akeem getting up to walk to the opposite end to talk to his parents face-to-face is a massive ordeal. This is apparently symptomatic of Akeem's entire relationship with his parents. When he does sit with them, his father remarks in surprise that he's grown a mustache.
  • Terrible Interviewees Montage: Akeem and Semmi's attempt to find his queen at a bar:
    Woman 1: I have a secret... (Prince Akeem and Semmi lean forward to listen closely) I worship the Devil!
    Woman 2: (takes two shots in a row) See, that's the problem. I can't find a man that can satisfy me. Now some guys go an hour, hour and a half, that's it. A man's gotta put in overtime for me to get off. (takes another shot)
    Woman 3: I'm not interested in a man unless he drives a BMW.
    Woman 4: Yeah, well y'know, baby, I'm almost single. My husband's on death row.
    Woman 5: (holding one hand right over a lit lighter flame as she speaks) I was Joan of Arc in my former life.
  • Throw the Dog a Bone: Akeem hands a large bundle of cash to a pair of homeless men sleeping outside... who turn out to be Randolph and Mortimer Duke from Trading Places.
  • Twin Threesome Fantasy: Akeem and Semmi meet two sets of twins in their Terrible Interviewees Montage, one of whom speaks in unison (and were formerly conjoined), the other of whom beatboxes.
  • Unishment: King Jaffe Joffer is outraged with how Akeem and his servant Semmi have been living in a squalid New York City apartment, and working for a local fast food restaurant. Semmi's "punishment"?
    King Jaffe: You will confine yourself to our royal suite at the Waldorf-Astoria. [to Oha] And see that he puts on some decent attire. [To the female servants] And I want you to bathe him thoroughly.
    Semmi: (happily) Oh, thank you, your majesty! (He then shamefully lowers his head again.)
  • Unusual Euphemism: Still can be offensive, but references to native African fauna is a bit jarring.
  • Waiting for a Break:
    Monique Mannen: "I want to work in videos, but I want to be my own star in the video, because I want to be a pop singer, a rock singer, and write my own songs. And then I'm going to try an actress, 'cause people tell me I'm a natural. Then I'm going to write and direct my own stories, produce the movies..."
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: What did King Jaffe do about Imani Izzi, the chosen bride who has just spent her entire life preparing to be a princess? For all we know, she could still be hopping on one foot while barking. Or, hopefully, just went back home - and maybe grew a personality. Anyway, Vanessa Bell Calloway, actress who played Izzi in this film, will play her again in the sequel.