'Coming to America': An Insult to Africa?

Twenty-five years after it premiered, first-generation African Americans discuss the film's stereotypes.

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Screenshot from Coming to America

(The Root) -- When Coming to America premiered 25 years ago, on June 29, 1988, it was an instant classic -- and the third-highest-grossing film of the year. The Eddie Murphy comedy, about a prince from a fictional African country who comes to the U.S. to find his future queen, tops plenty of fans' funniest-movie-of-all-time lists. But not everyone finds it hilarious.

Amuache Emenari, a 26-year-old Washington, D.C., native whose parents are from Nigeria, told The Root that certain scenes from the film make him grimace. 

"It wasn't funny to me," said the computer engineer. "I wasn't a fan of the depictions of the wild animals roaming about, of African royalty or of the accents."

But Shaun Ossei-Owusu -- a 27-year-old Bronx, N.Y.-born Ph.D. candidate in the University of California, Berkeley's African-American studies department -- told The Root that Coming to America is "one of my favorite movies ever." A child of Ghanaian parents, he doesn't recall taking issue with the way Africans were portrayed when he first watched the film as a kid back in the early 1990s. 

These opinions about Coming to America reflect the contrasting views -- among Americans one generation removed from the Motherland -- about a film that revolves around Africa and Africans. The Root spoke to several first-generation African Americans to explore the degree to which class, culture and the perception of Africa explain why the film has been embraced by so many.

Ossei-Owusu described the depiction of Africans in the film as having "The Cosby Show effect" because it countered the not-so-flattering stereotypes that persist for Africans. "Yes, Africans can have bread," he said. "They can stay at the Waldorf Astoria. They can have extravagant weddings. They can be intelligent and charming." Eddie Murphy's character, Akeem, and his family were rich and cultured -- a characterization that is rare in TV and film. 

"The movie portrays African royalty, which is powerful, given the predominant stereotypes of Africa -- à la National Geographic," Ossei-Owusu said, referencing television programming that shows emaciated African children with bloated bellies, and flies swarming around their eyes and mouths. These images of Africa and the people who live there usually serve as the backdrop of a narrative that encourages viewers to donate $1 a day to save the starving continent.

Interestingly, it is Prince Akeem's wealth, and his attempts to mask it in order to attract a woman who will love him for the right reasons, that is a point of contention for some viewers.

"They made him look like a dumb African," said Chinedu Okpukpara, a doctor from Atlanta, and the son of Nigerian parents. If Prince Akeem and Semmi -- his sidekick, played by Arsenio Hall -- truly wanted to mask their wealth, then why did they initially walk around with furs and gold chains, while a seven-man team wheeled their gold-plated luggage behind them? That luggage later gets stolen when it is left unattended on a sidewalk in broad daylight. And when Prince Akeem is first asked to mop the floor after he gets a sanitation gig at McDowell's (the fictitious fast-food chain that resembles McDonald's), he hilariously mishandles the mop in a way that suggests he's never seen one before.

Jason Hendrickson, an English professor at LaGuardia Community College in Queens, N.Y., said that it's important to look at Coming to America's depiction of Africans for what it is: part of an "American-centered representation of Africa."

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