It’s always fun and games when we talk about black people shit – more specifically, what media we consume that gauges our proximity to “blackness.” But when it comes to Coming to America, it’s not a game: if you’re an adult who considers themselves black and you’ve never seen it, maybe hit up 23andMe to make sure you’re black.
The funniest, and the best, of Eddie Murphy’s 40-plus movies, Coming to America hit theaters 30 years ago during a presidential campaign that would see George H.W. Bush win the White House a few months later. It wasn’t Murphy’s first 1980s hit – he was the man following the Beverly Hills Cop films – but America was the first truly blackety-black film that didn’t involve him playing the comic relief opposite a bunch of straitlaced white people.
Mind you, this was the 1980s and America was directed by a white dude (John Landis, of Thriller fame), so the film’s treatment of Africa, its cultures and traditions border on offensive by today’s standards. But the depiction of the fictional African nation of Zamunda might be the closest predecessor to Black Panther’s Wakanda dedicated to celluloid.
Coming to America was a showcase for black talent in the late 1980s before Spike Lee and Tyler Perry made that a regular thing in their films. Actors with unnamed roles – like Samuel L. Jackson and Cuba Gooding, Jr. (who didn’t even have lines), – went on to have highly successful careers in Hollywood.
It’s also one of the most quotable films ever: there’s a reason that individual clips from the movie have millions of views on YouTube. If you find a black person between the ages of 30 and 50 who can’t loosely quote at least four scenes from the film, don’t trust them around your kids or your collard greens.
Here are some of my favorite memorable scenes from the film.
1. Akeem’s Morning Ritual
The movie kicks off with the then-27-year-old Murphy celebrating his 21st birthday, clearly wary of his excessive royal morning ritual. Dude has a guy to give him the quickest teeth-brushing of all time and wipers to clean up after that morning deuce. And, of course, there’s the “your royal penis is clean” scene, which excited a young me who had no business watching this movie at my age for obvious reasons. Because why not have a reason for JET Beauty of the Week-caliber women to be topless?
2. Sexual Chocolate
Coming to America brilliantly executed what movies don’t bother with anymore: transformative makeup jobs in the pre-CGI era. Arsenio Hall is brilliant as the heavily made-up, unctuous Reverend Brown, who introduces Murphy’s equally made-up Randy Watson and his band Sexual Chocolate. The singing is trash, the audience’s indifference is great, the mic drop is stellar comedic timing and Clint Smith’s “Dat boy good!” is forever etched in our minds.
3. The Barbershop Scenes
You’d have to frequent a black barbershop (or beauty shop) to understand how Murphy’s gold-toothed barber Clarence is every black barber who keeps your ass captive in the chair 15 to 20 minutes longer than you need to be simply because he can’t multitask while running his damn mouth. The best shop scene involved their discussion of the best boxers as an unknown Gooding Jr. sits in the chair. Hall’s “His mama named him Clay, Imma call him Clay” is one of the movie’s most co-opted lines. Murphy in whiteface as Saul, the Jewish customer, is likely the actor’s most complete transformation in his 35-year career.
4. Soul Glo Commercial
I’m pretty sure if I were old enough to dictate what I could do with my own hair, I, too, would have been convinced by the Soul Glo commercial that having a big, bountiful, dripping Jheri Curl was the move. The overly-dramatic “Just let it shine throoougoouughhhyeah!” has not left my head after decades.
5. The Club Scene
“Never go to the club to meet your partner” is a time-worn truism that was worth poking fun at before many of you were born. This scene is hilarious for its subtleties, including how the fine, buxom lady says she’s “into the group thing” and Akeem’s smile stops while Semmi grins ear to ear. The scene ends with Hall shamelessly cross-dressing to portray a sexual hellcat of a woman who offers to tear them both apart. Shout out to the casting directors for getting two sets of identical twins for the scene.
6. Everything about Imani’s Introduction
Where do I begin…? There’s the fake-out introduction when Akeem thinks he’s to marry a big woman, the dancers who get the f— down, Paul Bates’ Oha and his off-key “Queen to Be” song, Vanessa Bell Calloway’s Imani hopping on one foot and barking like a dog. It’s certainly dated, patriarchal and the polar opposite of what you might find in Black Panther, but you’re a robot if you don’t still chuckle at Imani hopping out of that room while going “woof, woof, woof!”
I’m expecting fights over my selections, which is perfectly okay for such a gem of a film. Just bring your receipts.
Dustin J. Seibert is a native Detroiter living in Chicago. Miraculously, people have paid him to be aggressively light-skinned via a computer keyboard for nearly two decades. He loves his own mama slightly more than he loves music and exercises every day only so his French fry intake doesn’t catch up to him. Find him at his own site, wafflecolored.com.