First-Generation Blacks: My Parents Are African, So Some Parts of Coming to America Was Straight Up Annoying

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

Screenshot from Coming to America

“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.”

That view is highlighted in the film — such as when love interest Lisa McDowell’s (Shari Headley) pompous boyfriend (Eriq La Salle) chides Akeem about his nationality, saying, “Wearing clothes must be a new experience for you,” and “What kind of games do y’all play in Africa? Chase the monkey?” Or when Akeem’s landlord (Frankie Faison) says, “We have a little bit of an insect problem, but you boys from Africa are used to that.”

Despite these jabs, for many the movie shed a positive light on the continent. Omari Wallace, a 26-year-old worker in New York City’s financial sector whose mother has roots in Barbados and whose father is a black American, said that the film “gave me the most majestic portrayal of Africans I’d ever seen, outside of ancient Egyptians.”

Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele is an editorial fellow at The Root and the founder and executive producer of Lectures to Beats, a nonscripted Web show that examines culture. Follow her on Twitter