‘Coming to America’ at 25: How it became the most beloved black comedy of all time

Twenty-five years ago, Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall took a momentous trip from the fictional African nation of Zamunda to the foreign land of Queens, New York, and the result was a larger-than-life comedy film called Coming to America.

An all-star cast and crew united to produce the movie, which became a box office hit and enduring classic.

On its milestone anniversary, the people behind the feature are reflecting on its imprint in cinematic history.

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“It feels like it just happened,” executive producer Leslie Belzberg tells theGrio. “I love the idea that Coming to America is still successful, that people still remember it and want to see it. Often, in my peer group and when I meet in the entertainment industry, they’ll still refer to that movie.”

“We were doing something that was slightly unprecedented,” she continues. “It’s very gratifying to know people enjoyed it as much as we enjoyed making it.”

For his Highness, Eddie Murphy

Making Coming to America was no easy feat, primarily due to its ambitious shooting schedule and set of continental proportions.

Belzberg got involved when she joined with director John Landis (Trading Places, Animal House) and his producing partner George Folsey Jr., and the three jumped from project to project as a unit.

The story was created by Murphy, for Murphy, and as Belzberg points out, it couldn’t have become a reality any other way.

“This was a very unusual, different piece of material than anything that was being made,” she recalls. “Eddie was the perfect guy to do it because he just had a gift for this kind of interesting character. And John had an unbelievably creative eye. All the pieces fit really well together.”

She adds, “It met a lot of crossover [success] because it had a lot of African-American actors in it, which I think was unusual for the time. It just, on so many levels, was precedent establishing.”

Murphy’s former manager and the film’s co-producer Robert Wachs remembers Murphy conceptualizing the idea while on the road during his stand-up tour.

The comedian, then 26, hand wrote the story on a “yellow pad,” and fought the studio to maintain creative control. A lawsuit later erupted when a writer claimed rights to the story.

Wachs notes that, while there may have been similar ideas, there was only one way to go about Coming to America.

“Paramount had a story about a king who was a despot, and I told Paramount we weren’t interested in making that movie,” Wachs remarks. “We wanted Eddie to be the good guy. To look good. To have morals and ethics and whatnot, and this other thing that was written about a king was not. He was a despot. He was a dictator.”

Conversely, Murphy’s character, Prince Akeem, was loosely based on his own persona, and the conflicts he faced as he quickly rose to fame in Hollywood.

At the time, the comedian was already a bonafide superstar, having already released his classic comedy specials Delirious and Raw, as well as several blockbuster films like Beverly Hills Cop and 48 Hours. The script was layered with Murphy’s musings on the life of a young, successful man, real or imagined.

“He questioned the real value of family, friendship and everything,” Wachs explains. “Did people really like him for what he was as a person, or was it because he was this young, successful, fabulous, flamboyant movie star?”

‘No journey is too great’

After the story was conceived, the next step was establishing a believable world for it to take place in, which in this case meant constructing an African country within a Hollywood sound stage.

Time was limited; money even more so. Yet energy and determination made up for logistical deficits.

The crew shot first in New York, then went to California, where Zamunda was built behind Paramount’s legendary gates.

“It’s basically like a fantasy right?” Belzberg recalls. “No country like that existed. Everything from the opening scene where you see the elephants walking past the castle, the palace and all of Zamunda were created…In those days, they didn’t even use computers to create mattes, so it had to be hand-painted.”

With a kingdom at her disposal, Paula Abdul, by then a music video choreographer and pop sensation, choreographed the wedding scene in the film.

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Abdul says, “I was among royalty:  Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall,  James Earl Jones, Madge Sinclair and director John Landis…and that’s just naming a few of the heavyweights working on this incredible film.  I really wanted to create something that was regal, unique and exhilarating all at the same time.  John Landis wanted an unforgettable performance that captured the joy and spirit of Prince Akeem’s wedding celebration. One of the biggest compliments I could ever receive as a choreographer is when I’m told that it’s one of the most recognizable and recreated dance scenes in our pop culture history.  Working on this project was one of the most extraordinary experiences that has truly enriched my life.”