How Eddie Murphy’s 1988 ‘Coming to America’ — plus the Showtime Lakers and N.W.A. — ushered in a cultural revolution
The classic comedy brought us Zamunda — 30 years before Wakanda
June 29 marks the 30th anniversary of Eddie Murphy’s Coming to America. Murphy was the biggest movie star of the ‘80s and, as his idol Richard Pryor did in the 1970s, Murphy completely revolutionized comedy. His decade-long run was nothing short of preposterous: Not only was he a cast member of Saturday Night Live (1980-84), there was 1982’s 48 Hours, Trading Places (1983), Beverly Hills Cop and its sequel (1984 and 1987), and two of the greatest stand-up routines of all time in 1983’s Delirious and 1987’s Raw. Murphy’s in-your-face comedy made him a true acolyte of Pryor’s. Yet, his charm — and bankability — made him a blueprint for just about every genre-shifting comedian to walk through doors he helped open.
Starring Murphy and his good friend Arsenio Hall (they both, famously, played multiple roles), Coming to America has become a touchstone of black city life. Also on the squad was James Earl Jones, John Amos, Shari Headley, Allison Dean and then-newcomers Eriq La Salle, Samuel L. Jackson and (briefly) Cuba Gooding Jr. The plot was simple: An African prince from the mythical country of Zamunda comes to America to find his future bride in the New York City borough of Queens, because where else would he look for a queen?
It’s important to remember that the comedy classic was released during the summer of 1988 and fell between the Los Angeles Lakers capturing their fifth championship of the decade and when N.W.A. dropped “Straight Outta Compton,” a song that would forever change hip-hop. And … all this occurred during the final months of the presidency of Ronald Reagan, whose policies indirectly gave rise to gangsta rap. Oh, and Jesse Jackson was also deep into his second presidential pursuit. Every block — from Compton to Queens, and everywhere in between — was hot. And ripe with rebellion.
Eight days before America’s release, the Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Detroit Pistons in a thrilling seven-game series. Not only would it prove to be Magic Johnson’s last ring, it was the Showtime Lakers’ final defining moment in an era in which they won five titles and captivated fans with a Magic Johnson-Larry Bird rivalry that revitalized and revolutionized the NBA. Basketball had shifted between Tinseltown and Beantown before making a stop in Motown — on its way to Chi Town. Rap relocated from the Big Apple to the City of Angels. And the movie theater introduced the world to a mythical African country of Zamunda when Chadwick Boseman was but 9 years old.
Most of Compton, California, lies about 20 minutes southeast of what was then known as the Fabulous Forum, home base for Magic and the Lakers. Compton wasn’t Hollywood — though Hollywood would absolutely capitalize on Compton. Less than a month after Magic’s final title arrived “Straight Outta Compton,” a single that almost instantly morphed hip-hop from its foundational party vibes to something far darker and more authentic to the times.
Again, this was 1988. HIV/AIDS was raging, crippling an entire country with fear and uncertainty. And “crack babies” became the term du jour used to denigrate black communities for generational addiction to the drug that desecrated inner-city communities. N.W.A.’s angry, intense and flawed music was a musical morning-after cocktail of the crack-cocaine epidemic, criminal justice disparities, gang culture and too many broken families. N.W.A. became First Amendment crusaders. “More people were coming over to my house to listen to N.W.A. [in 1988] than were going across the street to the crack house,” Chris Rock has said. “It was kind of like the British Invasion for black people.”
“Straight Outta Compton” hit radios on July 10, 1988, just as Coming to America was a cash cow in theaters, being loved by black audiences while simultaneously receiving poor reviews from mainstream white publications. The album of the same title hit shelves a month later. And the movie Straight Outta Compton would end up receiving widespread critical acclaim, and an Oscar nod, in 2016.
Screenwriter Barry Blaustein is almost in shock that the Lakers’ conquest, America and America’s official introduction to five n—-s with attitude all happened within the same 20 days. Along with David Sheffield, Blaustein wrote the screenplay for Coming to America. He lived in L.A. at the time of the film’s release but admits to having had a kind of tunnel vision. “When you have a movie come out,” he said, “the time becomes about the movie.”
On the surface, Murphy, Hollywood’s golden child, could do no wrong. But nothing is perfect. Murphy and director John Landis butted heads
despite their history. “He directed me in Trading Places when I was just starting out,” Murphy told Rolling Stone in 1989. “But he was still treating me like a kid five years later, during Coming to America. And I hired him to direct the movie.”
In 2005, Landis gave his side of the story. “The guy on Trading Places was young and full of energy and curious and funny and fresh and great,” he said. “The guy on Coming to America was the pig of the world — the most unpleasant, arrogant, bulls— entourage, just an a–h—.” OK. But much like Pryor’s Grammy-winning This N—–’s Crazy, Murphy’s Raw and Delirious had become the lexicon of barbershops, salons and cookouts. Murphy’s movies made him a household name in middle America, yet he was a ghetto superstar — with pop star perks. He wasn’t Trading Places Eddie anymore.
America took less than a year to film, cut and release — six months to be exact. The film was shot on the fly. A freestyle, even: “That was the first draft of script that’s on the screen,” Blaustein said. America had its own sense of basketball quirkiness too. Eriq La Salle’s Jheri curl and the Soul Glo franchise was directly inspired by then-Los Angeles Clipper (and current Oklahoma City Thunder announcer) Michael Cage, one of Blaustein’s favorite players at the time. “I don’t even think he knows that,” said Blaustein with a laugh.
Future Indiana Pacers big man Rik Smits makes a brief appearance in the movie when the scene shifts to Madison Square Garden. When Prince Akeem and Patrice McDowell (Dean) go on a double date with Darryl Jenks (La Salle) and Lisa McDowell (Headley), the scene was shot during an actual game. Blaustein can’t recall the actual game, but Smits’ lone appearance in the Garden was Dec. 28, 1987, when he was a standout senior at Marist College who averaged nearly 25 points and nine rebounds per game. Marist lost 66-59 to Jayson Williams’ St. John’s.
America was another box-office blockbuster for Murphy. The film, created for $28 million, was released in more than 2,000 theaters, making more than $21 million in its opening weekend alone. By the time the film closed on Dec. 1, 1988, it had grossed nearly $300 million worldwide. But the Coming to America nearly universally loved today was not the Coming to America in 1988. Many early reviews panned the film based on a variety of factors — from outright chauvinism, unoriginality and colorism to Murphy’s unwillingness to consider black representation on the big screen.
“Coming to America is the filmic equivalent of using a Maserati to go to the corner grocery store,” wrote Duane Byrge in The Hollywood Reporter. “Murphy’s colossal comic gifts and Landis’ countercultural sensibilities are largely wasted, never pushed to the floor in this idling, curbed comedy.
“Coming to America starts on a bathroom joke, quickly followed by a gag about private parts, then wanders in search of something equally original for Eddie Murphy to do for another couple of hours,” deadpanned Variety. “It’s a true test for loyal fans.”
As America’s success skyrocketed, so came the controversies. The biggest being that Murphy, who originally authored the script, had hijacked the plot. Prince Oman Oba Adele Mouftaou claimed Murphy stole his real-life story — he claimed he traveled to America from the Ivory Coast in 1981 in search of a wife who would marry him, but not for his wealth and royal standing. Political columnist Art Buchwald claimed to have sold Paramount King for a Day, a 1983 script that targeted Murphy. Buchwald’s lawsuit dragged on for years through appeals and was ultimately settled in 1995. Thirty years later, Blaustein is unbothered.
“I know what I wrote, and I’m comfortable with it,” he said. “Whenever a movie comes out and it’s successful, there are always people coming out and saying it was ‘my idea.’ It’s nothing incredibly original about the idea of Coming to America. It’s a fairy tale.”
An assertion that bothered Murphy, though, was that America didn’t do enough to help diversify Hollywood. This was a battle both Pryor and Redd Foxx had fought years before him. Foxx demanded that NBC hire more black writers for Sanford and Son, complaining that white writers couldn’t fully understand the black experience. “They’d rather [kill Sanford and Son], losing out on millions for their stockholders,” Paul Mooney wrote in his 2010 memoir Black Is the New White, “than let a black man tell them what to do.”
Spike Lee criticized Murphy, before America, about not doing enough to help black people. That his massive success only benefited him. But Murphy did, in fact, open doors and shift the culture. America is a film for and about black people. Every black person has been in a barbershop or salon debate like the one in America. Just like every black person has attended an awkward live musical performance, like that of Randy Watson and Sexual Chocolate, at a church talent show or neighborhood community drive. And just as pretty much every black person can attest to the low shooting percentage of meeting a potential life partner in a local club. The 1988 classic had only three speaking parts from white actors. Every other line in the movie came from black actors.
“[Having a majority black representation] was very important [to Eddie], and not just for cast members. But crew members, people behind the scenes, makeup, hair,” said Blaustein. “He got a lot of people union cards. Whenever I’ve worked with [Eddie], usually I’m the only white person,” Blaustein said, laughing.
The shift continued the next year with Harlem Nights and with 1992’s Boomerang (for which Blaustein and Sheffield also wrote the screenplay). But it’s Coming to America, the movie that introduced a mythical African country called “Zamunda” to the silver screen 30 years before Black Panther made “Wakanda” an international tour de force, that stands unique in Murphy’s hall of fame catalog. And now a sequel, co-written by black-ish creator Kenya Barris, is on the way.
In the era of the internet and the undeniable influence of social media, America has found new footing even with generations who weren’t born when the movie thrust itself into pop culture consciousness. Coming to America is surreal on several fronts for Blaustein. Thirty years have passed. That he helped create something so eternal is never lost on him. “I remember it being a very vibrant time. You just got a feeling things were changing,” he reflected. “Or were about to change.”