How Coming to America Flipped the Script on Eddie Murphy’s Career

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Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall in Coming to America. Photo: Paramount Pictures

When the Eddie Murphy vehicle Coming to America landed in theaters 30 years ago, it was received in much the same fashion as the comic superstar’s last few pictures (Eddie Murphy: Raw, Beverly Hills Cop II, The Golden Child) — big box office, but middling reviews. A few noted that it marked something of a departure for Mr. Murphy, playing a gentler character in what was, as the studio’s press notes pointed out, his first romantic comedy. But few could have predicted that the film would influence so much of what Murphy did in the years to follow — or the hold it would continue to have on contemporary audiences.

Murphy was the undisputed box office king of the 1980s, propelling his explosive debut in 48 Hrs. into a series of wildly successful vehicles. He set himself up with an old-fashioned (and lucrative) studio contract at Paramount, where he began to develop his own projects under the “Eddie Murphy Productions” banner. He devised the story to Coming to America (he said; more on that later), of an African prince looking for his queen in Queens, New York, as a chance to work with his pal Arsenio Hall, who had just come to national prominence as Joan Rivers’s replacement host in the final weeks of her failed Fox talk show.

Screenplay duties were handed off to David Sheffield and Barry W. Blaustein, who began writing for Murphy when he was on Saturday Night Live. And to direct, Murphy brought in John Landis, who helmed his early hit Trading Places. The intensity of the schedule (it began shooting six months before its summer release date) and the big egos involved did not, by most accounts, make for a harmonious set. “He directed me in Trading Places when I was just starting out as a kid, but he was still treating me like a kid five years later during Coming to America,” Murphy told Rolling Stone in 1989. “And I hired him to direct the movie!” Landis, in a 2005 interview, granted that Murphy had changed. “The guy on Trading Places was young and full of energy and curious and funny and fresh and great,” he explained. “The guy on Coming to America was the pig of the world — the most unpleasant, arrogant, bullshit entourage, just an asshole.”

But whatever the tensions on set, the collaboration yielded rewards. Landis brought in Rick Baker, the Oscar-winning makeup wizard whom he’d worked with on An American Werewolf in London and Michael Jackson’s Thriller video, to design the elaborate prosthetics that allowed Murphy and Hall to each play multiple supporting roles — wild comic creations (in essence, Saturday Night Live bits and characters) to offset their kinder, gentler leads. Landis, who had just read a book about Jewish comedians donning blackface in the vaudeville days, suggested flipping the script. “Rick Baker can make you an old Jew,” he told his star, and Baker did — so successfully that when Paramount executives visited the set while Murphy was made up as “Saul,” they didn’t recognize their studio’s biggest star.

Those pleasures were barely noted by mainstream critics when Coming to America was released in June. Time’s headline, “The Taming of Eddie Murphy,” was emblematic of the reviews — complaints abound that by casting Murphy as such a restrained character, the film “seems designed to handcuff and gag the high-voltage, outrageous comedian,” as Stanley Kuffmann wrote in The New Republic. Never mind the outrageous comedy of the character vignettes, or Murphy’s understandable desire to grow his screen persona. But audiences turned out in droves; it ended up banking a staggering $288 million in receipts (on a $35 million budget).

And then the lawsuits began. Five separate suits were filed, by everyone from struggling screenwriters to an actual African prince (who claimed the film told the unauthorized story of his life), but the biggest name was political columnist Art Buchwald, who said he sold Paramount a Murphy-targeted treatment called King for a Day in 1983. His $5 million breach of contract suit would dominate entertainment journalism for years, not only for the sensational claims of plagiarism, but for the subsequent exposure of “Hollywood math” that would lead Paramount to claim, when the court ruled in Buchwald’s favor, that the $288 million grosser had somehow not shown a profit. (The tabloids, meanwhile, had a field day reporting Murphy’s lavish weekly expenditures during production, including $3,800 for his custom motor home, $1,500 for his personal trainer, $650 for his valet, $5,000 for a weekly “living allowance,” and $235 for a single McDonald’s breakfast for the star and his entourage.) After the court ruled in Buchwald’s favor, Paramount appealed, then finally settled the suit in 1995.

Beyond questions of authorship, another quiet controversy haunted Coming to America in 1988 — a question of representation. In a New York Amsterdam News editorial (later republished, presumably for the benefit of white readers, in the Village Voice), Ali Rashid Abdullah wrote that “voices from the African-American community have, predictably, taken positions pro and con in relation to the imaging of African-Americans, as well as Africans, in Coming to America,” specifically regarding the scenes in Prince Akeem’s native Zamunda. Abdullah asked, pointedly, “Does Murphy help perpetuate a negative image of Africa — for the sake of a few laughs — at a time when blacks are beginning to identify with their African roots?”

In the New York Sun, noted bomb-thrower Armond White took it further, calling Coming to America “a betrayal of every instance of politics, history, sex, and ethnic culture Black people have ever known.” White’s review was so over-the-top that it prompted Murphy to respond, issuing a statement in a paid advertisement in the Sun, finding “the lack of charity on the part of this black man for another black man’s life and work to be puzzling, superficial, uniquely vicious and deserving a public response.”

In retrospect, what’s truly baffling about White’s broadside is how thoroughly it glosses over what was, in fact, revolutionary about Coming to America in the arc of Murphy’s career. White writes, “There’s ethnic self-loathing and humiliation throughout Coming to America. Murphy’s consciousness is the kind that is completely detached from political action …. Black politics, Black consciousness, has never figured in the plots of Murphy’s movies, but his comic’s acumen uses the idea of Black awareness in order to seem truly Black, up to date.”

There is a kernel of truth in the latter point — Murphy’s films were not, to this point, about black people. His debut, 48 Hrs., was at its essence the story of a hip, fast-talking black dude who was the smartest guy in a room full of white people, and that’s a pretty apt description of Trading Places, Beverly Hills Cop, and Beverly Hills Cop II as well. As his power and bankability increased, and as his involvement in the development of his pictures became more hands-on, Murphy got a fair amount of flak for not creating opportunities for other African-Americans; most notably, this was the subject of a long-running feud between Murphy and Spike Lee, who told Jet magazine, “If Eddie Murphy, who made a billion dollars for Paramount, went into their offices and said, ‘I ain’t making any more films until you hire some Black people in your front office,’ they would have to do it. I hope he’ll use his clout rather than focus on who gets the best table at Spago’s.”

Murphy pushed back against this criticism — “[The] company is called Paramount, not Eddie Murphy Productions,” he told Rolling Stone. “I can’t walk into the studio’s front offices and demand shit: ‘Hire some black people here!’” — but even a cursory glance at his filmography shows a course correction that began in 1988. Even Lee noticed it; in the introduction to his Do the Right Thing companion book the following year, he acknowledged Coming to America as “a serious move by Eddie Murphy to do a film by and about Black people.” (More than that, it was a movie that didn’t make a big deal about its blackness; as Landis recalled, “I realized this is an opportunity to do something really important that nobody will notice… It was so successful; no one ever refers to that as an African-American movie. Ever. Yet it has three speaking parts for white people. Every other speaking role is an African-American.”)

So Murphy did, in fact, create opportunities in the process — America sports early appearances by Samuel L. Jackson, Eriq La Salle, and (if you look closely) Cuba Gooding Jr. Immediately thereafter, Murphy wrote, produced, directed, and starred in Harlem Nights, a film stocked with African-American showbiz legends and up-and-comers. Three years later, he reteamed with screenwriters Blaustein and Sheffield for Boomerang, romantic comedy with a nearly all-black ensemble cast. And in the years that followed, he alternated Beverly Hills Cop–style action flicks with Coming to America–ish black-oriented multi-role comedies like The Nutty Professor, Vampire in Brooklyn, and Norbit.

Yet Coming to America stands tallest, boosted to this day by its memorable characters and meme-friendly dialogue and costumes (witness the flurry of moviegoers hitting Black Panther’s opening weekend in both Wakandan and Zamundan duds). By any reasonable definition, its standing today is less that of a studio comedy than a cult movie — though that term has been appropriated by white bro-movie culture to films like Fight Club, The Big Lebowski, and (God help us) Boondock Saints that dominate midnight-movie bookings and retro screenings.

But it has the cultural ubiquity and endless quotability of a great cult movie — and something else besides. What binds the best cult films is a uniquely personal perspective, and again, one doesn’t think of a big-time ’80s Eddie Murphy movie as particularly personal. Yet from its opening scenes, in which Murphy’s Prince Akeem is awakened by a string ensemble, bathed by beautiful women, and escorted on rose petals everywhere he goes, America is satirizing the popular perception of Murphy’s lavish lifestyle (a perception all but confirmed by the receipts read in the Buchwald trial). Writing in the short-lived New York magazine 7 Days, Louis Menand took the allegory further: “It’s the story of a man who lives in a fantasy world where every desire is satisfied and where everyone loves him. But he fears for his true self, the man he was before his wealth and success, and he dreams of returning to the mean streets of his beginnings and discovering his true soul’s companion. He doesn’t want the mean streets, though, he wants the royal palace; and when he finds his soulmate, that is where he expects to return. Wealth will then be a just reward — the reward for being true to himself.

“Zamunda, in short, is Hollywood, and Akeem is Eddie Murphy.”

How Coming to America Changed Eddie Murphy’s Career