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Culture Retrospective: “Coming to America”

April 12, 2010

Today at Word, we reflect on 1988’s “Coming to America”. This comedy not only displays Eddie Murphy at the height of his comic powers but also makes subtle moves to engage with the complex issue of African American identity.

The film concerns the prince of an African monarchy traveling to New York in order to escape familiar privilege and find an American woman to be his wife. Prince Akeem (notably not the more Arab “Hakeem”) conceals his royal lineage in order to better blend into the populace as well as find a woman who appreciates him for qualities beyond wealth and status.

Of course, this plot relies heavily on old story pieces of wealth, honesty and disguise. But it stands out from the Hollywood crowd by virtue of the contemporary context in which it couches those elements. The film depicts the main character’s homeland, Zamunda, as a place where members of the royal family lead luxurious lives, so wholly ensconced by wealth and aristocratic tradition that ordinary living seems unimaginable. The United States, by contrast, appears through the film’s take on Queens, New York: a working-class salad of strivers and criminals. When Akeem’s American romantic rival, Darryl, refers to the prince’s African upbringing by telling him, “Wearing clothes must be a new experience for you,” the movie confirms its stand American ignorance.

While “Coming to America” could have centered around a European monarchy, an upper-class archetype well represented in Hollywood films, it opts for depicting sophisticated Africans. It challenges our stereotypes of where wealth and high education can exist.

While many Americans conceive of Africa as a uniformly destitute region whose cultures have never reached the grand accomplishments of their European counterparts, this comedy reminds us that great forms of civilization have and do exist in what we still too often consider the “dark continent”.

Perhaps the director wears rose-colored glasses as he makes no note of the very real economic and political problems that many African nations face, but one major motion picture with African aristocrats is better than none.

And, unsurprisingly, the movie’s subtext comes through most vibrantly through its use of language. Akeem not only speaks fluent English (thereby defying the stereotype of the ignorant foreigner), he also speaks with remarkably standard grammar and enunciation. His expressions do not bear the linguistic hallmarks of African American English. As he converses with natives of Queens, one can hardly make the common misunderstanding of AAE as an African language. Akeem’s character reminds us of the United States’ cultural distance from Africa without allowing for that distance to be expressed by a contrast of the advanced West with poor Africa.

Perhaps if other popular movies were as careful as “Coming to America” in depicting cultural dynamics between the US and Africa, not so many harmful stereotypes would persist.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Cara Shousterman permalink*
    April 18, 2010 3:38 pm

    This movie is really becoming relevant again as increasing numbers of African immigrant immigrants are coming to NYC. Although many of them are settling in Harlem and the Bronx now, rather than Queens. I’ve been looking at census info on this recently.

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