society + Coming to America [1988] – What’s it say about us?

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Popcorn anyone? Candies? We are back at The Movies! This time we are going to look at a classic, “an oldie but a goodie” you might say. Where else can you find African warriors, an obvious McDonald’s ripoff and Arsenio Hall in a wig? That’s right, we’ll look at one of the funniest movies of all time and see what it has to say about our good and friendly Americans. Ready to read?

*There may be spoilers here if you haven’t watched the movie yet, but, I mean, 1988.

Zamunda on the map, from Jungle Maps

Now, I know this movie’s a little old. For those who don’t know, the sequel finally came out this year (2021), cleverly named Coming 2 America, and has many of the same cast members as the original. That title alone tells you how much we love puns and double meanings in the U.S., particularly when it comes to naming stuff. The movie is worth a look on Amazon Prime, but I’ll leave a link to the trailer here in case you don’t pay for that service … yet. The first movie has countless jokes that plenty of people reference to this day. It wasn’t just an American success either since this movie and its crazy scenes have fans from all over the world. Despite the fact that the story follows a young African prince — of Zamunda to be exact, please check your nearest map — and his royal assistant who basically tour New York in order to find a princess, the movie itself has a lot to say about our U.S. of A. And what better way to do this than to start with Africa?

The nation of Zamunda is like one of those ongoing jokes about Americans not knowing geography. Now, it is pretty common for filmmakers to come up with a fake name for countries in their movies, but Zamunda sounds like one of the answers you’d get from a classmate after a teacher asks them, “Name a country in Africa.” I know, Zamunda! It just sounds African, even if it isn’t real, and that’s why it sheds some light on American culture. Many people (around the world, but especially in America) don’t know much about Africa at all. You might be surprised just how little many African Americans know about Africa. Zamunda was meant to be fictitious, but I bet you there were many people that thought it was real, and as a matter of fact, probably still think so.

Stepping off the plane in Zamunda, Photo by Frans Van Heerden on Pexels.com

Not to speak poorly of my fellow citizens, to be fair, there are many who know a lot about geography. But, I’m going to go ahead and say that most of us don’t. Poor geography skills aside, the movie says some other things about our view of Africa. It was admirable that they chose to show African royalty as opposed to poverty, and the royal family is very wealthy in the movie. Coming to America stars pretty much all black people too which is appropriate for a movie about Africans, though this has not always been the case. The movie came out at a time when black people were really growing in their pride and interest in African heritage, and this trend has swept over black American culture ever since. In Zamunda we can still see lots of random animals you might find on a safari just running around the palace. This plays on the idea that many Americans have this view as if Africa is full of lions, elephants, giraffes, and whatnot. Many people think you can step off a plane and see a rhinoceros, for example. It goes the same for other countries, like some people believe Brazil is all Amazon or Australia is all kangaroos. Don’t blame the people, blame our T.V. … and Kangaroo Jack, of course.

Many people’s image of what Africa is like (sorry for the moon), Photo by Faris Munandar on Pexels.com

Americans perceive that it is hard for foreigners to speak and understand English the way it is used naturally. Even for Zamundans, a nation that speaks English, cultural differences create a big gap. We see several scenes where Akeem (that’s Eddie Murphy) has hilarious misunderstandings with people because of the way he talks. Often, foreigners learn English in formal schools and their speech sounds very proper to us here. This explains why they had Akeem embarrassing himself so much. He’s also a skilled warrior and fights with spears, which is a sort of stereotype about Africans being wild and hunting with old weapons. Some rural or hunter-gatherer communities do, but most Africans aren’t quite as skilled as Akeem is with the spear.

Soul Glo & the Jheri curl

Going back to ’80s trends, that Soul Glo hairspray stuff has some major moments in the movie. The Jheri curl is the hairstyle that this spray makes, and it was fairly popular, especially among black people in the late ’80s to early ’90s. You had some ladies in tight bikinis, which relates to a sort of sexual revolution that was going on at the time, starting in the ’60s and getting more and more, um, liberated, up until modern times. And talk about that crazy pastor and the “Sexual Chocolate” guy! Most pastors and reverends are decent people, but you do get some bad eggs every once in a while. That creepy one in the movie references these “bad” pastors who care too much about money, yelling loudly, and watching half-naked women. Despite that stuff, you do still see many pastors who speak in the same style that he does. “Yess-uh, I wanna thank yah Lawd, uh-yas Lawd!” I don’t know where this style came from, but it’s very common for pastors to talk like this, especially in black churches in the South or smaller cities.

You know it’s a barbershop when you see this, Photo by LOGAN WEAVER on Unsplash

Another part of the movie I want to talk about is New York. They spend most of the movie in Queens, a borough of New York City. Queens during the ’80s and before was known for having lots of black people and being sort of a poor neighborhood. Queens still has some rough parts, I hear (I mean I am from Los Angeles…), but it also has lots of nice neighborhoods nowadays. In the movie you see people throwing trash out their windows, cursing at each other, and people robbing each other. New York is fairly safe now, but before the 9/11 attacks some parts of the city were a lot more dangerous. The barbershop scenes are very important since they are seen as key parts of black communities. All communities have barbershops, but in black communities they are places of communion where people go to hear local news, talk with friends, and tease each other. So it’s really a family atmosphere. Hair has always been really important for black people, and hair care is a big deal for us. Remember that when you visit, and please don’t touch anybody’s weave, wig, afro, braids, or Jheri curl. Well, you can cut off their Jheri curl, I approve.

In the last post on Doctor Sleep, we saw lots of big houses and how they represent the modern American home. However, in big cities and especially in lower-class areas, there are lots of apartments like the ones in the movie; small, dirty, ugly, with neighbors who are noisy or kind of grouchy. In big cities you can see more angry people who are in a rush too. I’ve heard from several foreign people who visited New York and thought Americans weren’t nice people. Remember that New York is just one place and it’s the biggest city, so you get lots of stressed people all having to live on a couple of congested islands. Still, mean and nice people can be found anywhere you go.

The most-played sport in America, Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Akeem watches basketball and tries to talk about American football, which are the two main sports in the U.S. He gets a little confused by the rules which is a normal thing. We also see Akeem and his friend, Semmi (Arsenio Hall), interact with several promiscuous women, including his future wife Lisa’s sister. This might relate to how American or Western women in general are seen as more sexually open than Eastern and African women. That’s why this was sort of a culture shock to the African prince, and it is actually a good point made by the movie. I can’t say too much else. McDowell’s is an obvious ripoff of McDonald’s, but many successful companies and products have come as a ripoff of another product. McDonald’s itself used the idea of two brothers in California to create a worldwide enterprise, and didn’t even change the name. Ah, the things you learn from Netflix.

That’s it people! Thanks for reading. If you want to practice your writing skills, you can answer these questions in the comments:

  1. Do you like the movie Coming to America? What about the sequel?
  2. Have you ever felt like Akeem when traveling to another country? Did you travel for love too?
  3. What is your favorite part of this movie?
  4. Would you rather live in Queens or Zamunda?

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