Based on an idea by Murphy, it reunited him with director John Landis five years after Trading Places and according to Landis, working with him was not the nice experience it was the first time around. As he told Collider.com in 2005: "The guy on Trading Places was young and full of energy and curious and funny and fresh and great. The guy on Coming to America was the pig of the world - the most unpleasant, arrogant, bullshit entourage...just an asshole." Surprised? You shouldn't be. In the five years between those projects Murphy had become an international superstar (his stint on SNL only made him famous in the US) and he'd starred in the biggest hit movie of 1984 all at the age of 23, so it's unsurprising to discover he'd become the dickhead we can easily recognise today.
Not to make excuses for him, but should his douchebag behaviour on set change what we see on screen? It shouldn't and it doesn't, which is handy since Murphy gives one of his best and possibly only endearing performances. The fast-talking, arrogant young man who walked around a bar full of "backward-ass country fucks" and amazingly walked out alive is transformed into a charming, intelligent gentleman who temporarily lives a lie for a noble reason.
Plonking a pampered prince and his similarly easygoing friend in a pre-Giuliani New York when the city was, quickly frankly, a shit hole drowning in crack, is all the set-up you need for a classic fish out of water story but David Sheffield and Barry W. Blaustein's script touches on a lot more than that. Black-on-black racism, small businesses ripping off large corporations, the ridiculousness of hair trends and (some) African-American pastors are all in the mix. But despite the on the nose observational humour Coming to America is a rom-com, and an original one at that.
Rom-coms from the male perspective aren't that rare anymore but in 1988 you could only really claim Annie Hall as one. Similarly the old trope in which one character pretends to be someone else to get the girl (Aladdin and Wedding Crashers, to name but two) is usually done to impress/deceive the lady, but Akeem only does it because he wants a wife who loves him for who he is and not what he has. Isn't that lovely? It's just lovely.
It was also the film that gave Mr Murphy his most famous trademark. As well as Akeem Murphy plays barber Clarence, Sexual Chocolate (*slams foot on floor*) lead singer Randy Watson and Jewish man Saul, which was the director's idea of Murphy getting his own back on the Jewish comedians who wore blackface in the early 1900s. Arsenio Hall also plays multiple characters, but this is the first time Murphy did it and now it's what we expect from him. Did I mention the make-up that transformed Murphy, Hall and Clint Smith was done by Rick Baker? It was done by Rick Baker. The glorious (Oscar-nominated) costumes were designed by Deborah Nadoolman Landis and the score comes courtesy of ABSOLUTE FUCKING LEGEND Nile Rodgers. So much yes.
Coming to America is already impressive on the basis that it combined so many world-class talents of but it's also a pretty big moment for black actors in Hollywood. Murphy had so much clout in those days he got a blank cheque from Paramount Pictures and made a very black film for a world wide audience and it landed. The film grossed nearly $300 million dollars and was the third highest-grossing film of that year in the States. To put things into perspective: this is like Will Smith being given free reign to make a black comedy starring black comedians in 1999. He probably could've done that but he didn't. He made Wild Wild West.
The film has experienced various thrusts into the limelight since its release (See Busta Rhymes' iconic homage here) but it deserves the legendary status given to the other films made during Murphy's heyday.
And now for a few classic scenes
1) Can I get an amen?
2) Who the fuck is this asshole?
3) You never met no Frank Sinatra
4) A vision of perfection/An object of affection to quench your royal fire/Completely free from infection/To be used at your discretion
5) Let your Soul Glo
FYI: Coming to America is on Netflix and DVD copies cost about £2. You have no excuse.