This weekend marks the 25th anniversary of Coming to America, one the most phenomenal films to come out of Hollywood. The creative genius of Eddie Murphy, the strong casting of actors who were at their prime (as well as those yet to shine), the beautiful script (loaded with bits that have become cinematic karaoke), the savvy positioning of African and African-American culture, the magic of a John Landis film (he also did Blues Brothers) and the iconic characters, half of whom, it seems, were portrayed by Murphy or Arsenio Hall.
It is the film you judge others for not having seen (well, really, your mind explodes at the impossibility of that), experienced by fans for a number of times that cannot be counted. Naming a single favorite part is impossible. Coming to America is a capsule to a time that is exclusively the 1980s, packaged in a classic tale of love, led by a man who really opened the box on roles for black characters, with an insatiable and brilliant urge to play all of them. Within four years of the film, Boomerang would arrive in theaters, introducing the black romantic comedy as a viable box office script. And for as good as almost every Eddie Murphy film is, nothing can really compare to Coming to America. It is an enduring mark of a moment of magical creative alignment.
The other day, while I was waiting for my receipt to print at Starbucks, the barista smiled boldly, looked into my eyes and proclaimed, “When you think of skinny mocha grande expressos, think of Amari.” He cheesed, waiting while a look of uneasy confusion took over my face in an awkward half-smile. “It’s a Coming to America reference,” he explained. His name being Amari, instead of Akeem; it being fancy coffee, instead of garbage. “Yeah, I get it,” I just don’t want the guy working at the most convenient Starbucks to my office picking up the habit of flirting with me. Taking my receipt, I accept that if I am the Lisa in this scenario, I would end up with Darryl. (Womp, womp.)
Though it was an uncomfortable exchange between two strangers, it was also a testament to the 80’s comedic classic film that remains a surefire mode of social currency well two decades years later. I attribute the endurance of Kanye’s “Gold Digger” to the McDowells employee roadmap reference in the lines, “He got ambition, baby, look into his eyes, this week he’s mopping the floor, next week it’s the fries.” And I have been subjected to the unexpected, always hilarious, “A-hah, a-hah!” reference from a coworker at the end of conversations that have nothing to do with missing spoons.
Frankie Faison, who now stars in Banshee on CINEMAX, shared the thought, “Even if you always strive to create something that lands itself in an iconic category, you’re not aware if it at the time. With Coming to America we were out to create a story about family, love and communication and while it’s usually viewed as a black film, I’ve always thought of it as a universal story that everyone can relate to — for me that defines it as a classic American story. Twenty-five years later, looking back, I feel so honored and privileged to have been apart of it because it has touched so many different generations of people from different backgrounds, and hopefully it continues to do so.” Faison, who played the Landlord, went on to featured roles in Silence of the Lambs, The Thomas Crown Affair, and The Wire, as well as a Tony Award-nominated performance in Fences.
In trying to think through how to tribute the milestone of a classic movie, it occurred to me, given the universal reach of comedy, that as much one could have grown up on The Cosby Show, the same is true of a movie like Coming to America, and perhaps more so. After all we came out a bit edgier, a bit sassier, a bit more interesting than we would have been solely left to the devices of Mr. Huxtable. And in any situation, whenever you are in doubt, there is a Coming to America line the scenario. It is the Godfather of comedy films.
And my favorite part…it’s when Akeem gives the money to the homeless Randolph and Mortimer. For years, I didn’t appreciate it because I hadn’t seen Trading Spaces. But now…Ah-hah! Ah-hah! (See that was two.)
From the dating maestro, Paul C. Brunson, to the latest wizard of media Issa Rae, here are a few other favorite memories of Coming to America from influencers who came of age mastering Akeem-isms as a second language.
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