'Coming 2 America': The Costumes Are Stunning
"Okay ... great gowns – beautiful gowns."
Those were the words thrown out by the one and only Aretha Franklin several years ago, when pressed by a journalist to say the first thing that came to mind at the mention of Taylor Swift's name. Think "If you can't say anything nice ..." pragmatically applied to a real-world situation. A shade that will live in infamy and memes.
Craig Brewer's Coming 2 America, the sequel to the enduring Eddie Murphy hit Coming to America, has arrived 33 years after its predecessor. Surprisingly, considering such a long gap, most of the beloved original cast has returned in parts both big and small. Murphy and Arsenio Hall are back as Zamundan Prince Akeem and his BFF and personal aide Semmi; James Earl Jones briefly reprises his role as King Jaffe Joffer, alongside John Amos (as the fast food restauranteur Cleo McDowell), Shari Headley (Akeem's love interest, now wife), Paul Bates (Oha, the royal servant with the voice of an angel), and Vanessa Bell Calloway (Imani, Akeem's would-be betrothed in the first movie who memorably barks like a dog at his command). Time has been kind to all these familiar faces, who seem to be having fun revisiting these characters.
But to borrow from a real-life queen – the Queen of Soul, as it were – what is there to say about Coming 2 America, a rehash with a convoluted, awkwardly rendered plot and some truly backwards perspectives? Great gowns. Beautiful gowns!
Seriously, Ruth E. Carter, the masterful Oscar-winning costume designer behind some of the greatest Black movie looks in history (Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, What's Love Got to Do With It, B*A*P*S, and Black Panther, to name just a few) again pulls out all the stops here. Building upon Deborah Nadoolman Landis's now-legendary designs for the original film, Carter – along with collaborators like Laduma Ngxokolo and Palesa Mokumbung, both from South Africa – has imagined resplendent patterns and accessories that jump off the screen and contextualize the characters even when the narrative storytelling falls flat. The colors are often vibrant and decadent (see, for instance, a gorgeous bright blue and gold-accented dress and headdress donned by Gladys Knight in a small cameo); the attention to detail is sharp (in a more environmentally-friendly nod to one of Akeem's most imitated looks from the original movie, he wears a ceramic, gold-plated lion's head on his suit, connecting to a cape evoking a mane).
One could get easily get lost in a slideshow of all the tableaus of beautiful Black people looking regal. And a slideshow would be more interesting than Coming 2 America itself.
Still, as this is a film review and I guess there's a bit more going on here besides beautiful gowns, you might as well get a sense of what exists of a story. So: When we open up on Zamunda, King Joffer is on his death bed, and shame hangs over Akeem's legacy because he and Lisa have had three daughters and no sons – according to Zamunda law, only men can inherit the throne. But alas! It's revealed Akeem has a son back in Queens, NY he never knew about, from a years-ago incident which took place during that first visit to the U.S. In one of a few regressive aspects of the movie, the circumstances of this encounter with Mary (Leslie Jones) suggest Akeem was date-raped, but the movie laughs it off and uses it as the catalyst for Akeem to connect with his long-lost offspring, Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler), and bring him back to Zamunda to groom as his heir.
Throw in Wesley Snipes as goofy war lord General Izzi, who is determined to become royalty by having his daughter (played by the singer Teyana Taylor) marry Lavelle; Tracy Morgan as Lavelle's caring uncle; and the barbershop guys (mostly Murphy and Hall, of course) who have got to be in their 90s at this point, offhandedly commenting on gentrification and #MeToo, and you've got ... well, you've got great gowns, beautiful gowns!
There are some admittedly chuckle-worthy moments sprinkled throughout, and any opportunity to see Randy Watson and Sexual Chocolate perform is sure to be a treat. But Coming 2 America's writers – Barry W. Blaustein and David Sheffield, who also penned the 1988 version; plus Kenya Barris and Justin Kanew – commit too readily to fan service and baldly reheat the greatest hits of quotes, while attempting to modernize its themes through a slap-dash "feminist" lens. Kiki Layne, a revelation in If Beale Street Could Talk, plays Akeem's oldest daughter Meeka, who resents the arrival of Lavelle and Zamunda's archaic rules prohibiting women rulers. She and her sisters are often seen practicing or engaging in combat when not chiding their father for going along with sexist traditions, but wielding a stick and challenging dad on social mores do not translate to the kind of "empowerment" and progressivism the writers think they do. In fact, most of the women in this movie seem to exist only to push the men in their lives to be better and cut out the misogynist mess – it may be true to real life, but even still, real life women have more dimensions to their beings than Coming 2 America affords them to have.
Coming To America was not a perfect movie – it trafficked in some cringe-worthy stereotypes around colorism, for one. But at the time of its release, it did have a freshness and impressively high average of timeless jokes for a comedy, which helps explain part of why it's been so readily passed on from generation to generation. (Well, that and the fact that it was constantly in rotation on cable.) Murphy was at his peak. Hall was on the cusp of his own peak. The entire ensemble was game and committed to this inspired spin on a fish-out-of-water story.
This kind of creative lightning rarely strikes the same place twice, and the quick hits of serotonin you may get from all the nostalgia this new iteration is spewing won't be enough to stop you from wondering the same thing you likely wondered when the sequel was officially announced a couple of years ago: Who asked for this?
At least we'll always have Carter's great and beautiful gowns.
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