World news – After coming to America 2 I understand why my mother hated the original

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Despite what it means to me to be the daughter of an African immigrant, I have worryingly few cultural touchstones from my mother’s homeland. She is Nigerian so I am aware of Nollywood even if I haven’t seen a movie. I smelled bowls of Egusi soup and refused. I regularly beat up Marvel (also in Slate) because its characters are unable to properly pronounce « Lagos », the name of Nigeria’s largest city and arguably the most populous in Africa. (Say it with me again: LAY-gus. It’s really not difficult!)

Otherwise, I’m American, born and raised. I love pizza and Ferris Buellers Day Off and music by sad white girls. None of this goes down as well with my mother as it does with me, even though she has lived in the USA since 1980 – longer than ever before in Nigeria. All of this explains why my mom and I had very different feelings about coming to America growing up.

Take the movie’s opening scenes, which are set in the fictional African state of Zamunda. Outside the palace we see little of the land from which Prince Akeem (Eddie Murphy, all enthusiasm and big smile) wants to break free. Instead, we envision the royal palace where Akeem is trapped in a gilded cage and waited on hand and foot (not to mention his « royal penis ») by a trail of female servants who scatter petals in his wake. It’s all comical, even fantastic, opulence that sets the stage for the journey from riches to rags (and back) and fish out of the water that is at the heart of the film. But to my mother, that central joke was a bit more insidious: The problem wasn’t that these rich people are ridiculous, or that Akeem is a spoiled rich boy who doesn’t understand how these American poor live – it’s a universal truth that, after all every nation and continent has its share of touchless rich people. The problem is that some of the humor is supposed to come from the fact that these rich people are Africans – because the idea that an African might actually be wealthy, especially when compared to an American, is perishing.

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And then comes that big dance sequence at the engagement where Akeem finally meets the bride his family arranged for him to be true marry. A parade of slender men and women with sandal feet marches into the throne room and shakes their grass skirts and feather headgear. Their clothes are barely there and it’s always a surprise that we don’t see someone’s private parts fall out when they dance with an obsessive intensity. It’s a beautiful performance, but one that does little to dispel the notion that the country’s nonroyals – the average people – are anything but “primitive” wandering the savannah in loincloths and makeup. (It may be worth noting that the outfits were made by the wife of director John Landis, the accomplished white costume designer Deborah Nadoolman Landis, while the dance was choreographed by Paula Abdul.)

When my mother was in the room and we were this one When she was watching film and she’d managed to get this far, this was usually when she was eavesdropping. I loved coming to America as a kid, found Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall so funny, and the love story between Akeem and his American « queen », the fast-food heiress Lisa, so cute, but it annoyed my mother. It wasn’t that she « didn’t get » the jokes, as with Ferris Bueller; Obviously, this film was offensive to them. « The accents sound like they’re trying to be bad South Africans! » she would sneer. « And what are these outfits? » It’s supposed to be fun Mom, we’d argue. Calm down man But no, mom wouldn’t « rest man » – because with so little American media focused on Africa, not only was it not a good thing that this was the consistent representation. It made her angry.

I was negative – 5 years old when Coming to America came out; In 1988 my mother was here for almost a decade and also in New York, where the film is set. “We all said, ‘OK, that’s supposed to be a wink,’” she told me recently, “but what my friends and I found offensive was that people who didn’t know any better probably thought that was the real deal « Thirty-three years later, with the sequel looming, it seems less likely that anyone would mistake Zamunda for a realistic representation of an African nation. After all, the Coming to America films are no longer the most prominent representation of a fictional African nation. » But at least Wakanda was positive, « she continued. » With the Eddie Murphy it was patronizing. « Before I saw the original for the first time in years, I had to wonder if it seems as defensible to me now or if it looks as out of date as it is a head full of Soul Glo Jheri curls.

Part of the reason is that I’m much more in touch with my own African roots now, I could still get them not to say a single Nigerian food I like, and I know barely a word about the ancestral language of my mother’s family, Igbo. But I was in the country almost 20 years ago and have come to appreciate this experience – and my mother grew up there – a lot more since I was older. Africa is an extremely diverse place that cannot be stereotyped. I can’t tell you what Zamunda is supposed to be inspired by as it doesn’t resemble any African nation I can think of. No, the African nation I can remember Nigeria is one where some wealthy people live in huge, enclosed mansions while others live in smaller, flatter houses. My aunt is an entrepreneur with tons of Chinese restaurants. My younger cousins ​​love Instagram and TikTok and high fashion and Tumblr and Social Justice Twitter. The traffic in Lagos is terrible. There are no elephants sauntering around like on Akeem’s estate. The languages ​​and accents vary widely.

As the title suggests, Coming to America is mostly not about Africa, but America, and this helps it hold up a little better than these early scenes suggest to let. Not that some of these scenes don’t make me uncomfortable too. Unlike Akeem, my mother was no stranger who blew up her money and tried to adjust by pretending to be a working class. She came here to attend a top university, do a lot of shopping, and make friends from all over the world. As much as I love to see an African portrayed as wealthy and respected, it also sucks to see Akeem so blissfully ignorant, as if he were like Will Ferrell’s buddy in Elf, fresh from the North Pole. This is far from the case with most of the immigrants who come to this country, especially those as rich as Akeem.

« Who cares, » I was tempted to tell myself. « It’s a comedy! » Akeem’s ignorance is the joke, and for most of its running time, the movie’s ultimate destination – the truly backward nation, the place where we see millions of blacks forced into poverty – the United States. And at the end of the day, it still frames an African nation as a place to return to, where to live and enjoy the riches. Better to mop the floors at McDowell’s.

However, if Coming to America’s problems are primarily in the portrayal of Africa, the sequel exacerbates those shortcomings with most of its action being carried out in Zamunda rather than America . And while we may all have gotten more enlightened in the three decades since the original film was made, it turns out that Zamunda hasn’t changed at all. Although, at the end of the original film, Akeem managed to overturn Zamunda’s traditional system of arranged marriage in order to find a more equitable partnership with his American queen, apparently this was the last reform he (and Lisa) ever advocated. The other ideals of the country are as patriarchal (in the truest sense of the word) as always: Akeem must have a male heir, because in Zamunda women are not even allowed to run business, let alone nations.

The film naturally presents this as one Another lumbering tradition that Akeem has to overcome (albeit belatedly), but the premise still plays with stereotypes about Africa’s lagging behind, and the film doesn’t get much more reflective from there. As the father of three daughters, Akeem seems to think he’s out of luck, but we are soon informed that Akeem was drugged by a woman (played by Leslie Jones) whom he and Semmi did during the trip to America portrayed in the original film (Arsenio Hall) invited her from the bar – a woman who then had sex with the prince and became pregnant with his son. That this scene portrayed a pretty straightforward rape (Akeem doesn’t remember anything about it other than bumping into a « boar ») while playing it for a laugh is one of the movie’s first and most terrifying decisions. As regrettable as this non-consensual Retcon may be, it is at least not an indictment against Africans who were capitalized.

But the trip to America is short and Akeem and Co. are quickly returning to Zamunda, the new discovered the Prince’s son, Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler), in tow. The reason for the rush is because Akeem almost literally has a gun on his head and the man holding the gun is General Izzi (Wesley Snipes), another of the more questionable creations in the film. The backstory is that Izzi has threatened to go to war with Zamunda if Akeem does not marry a son with the general’s daughter and forges a peace. As much as Snipes seems to be enjoying the role, his character is a depressingly familiar figure from western media and headlines: He is a murderous warlord who equips child soldiers with weapons that are almost too big to carry. One of the only perks is that he trains her using the arcade version of Dance Dance Revolution, but the underlying theme is about as funny as what happened to Akeem that night that he can’t remember / p> Izzi’s nation has become so confidently undervalued (her name is Nextdoria) that I have no other traits to discuss, and the film’s treatment of Zamunda isn’t much better. Now that we have to really spend the next 70 minutes of the film in the country, there is some responsibility to actually give it character, but instead the « joke » is that the country Akeem loves so much is as general as every other other western take up Africa. This, too, seems self-conscious: the film underscores this with repeated references to the Lion King, from the movie’s opening shot sweeping over a herd of antelopes in an echo of the Disney classic, to several characters dubbed Mufasa. In fact, these aren’t even the only references to lions. In one of the trials Lavelle has to undertake to become a prince, he has to pluck the whiskers from one of the animals – because the royals are apparently constantly threatened by jungle creatures? In this context, even the scenes that attempt to subvert African stereotypes do so only while repeating them in the process. Lavelle’s final process, he is told, is that he must undergo ceremonial circumcision using a machete – a potentially grotesque reference to the Western reputation of some African nations as places of abundant female genital mutilation. It’s a bait-and-switch, ultimately: it turns out to be some kind of practical joke, and Lavelle’s royal foreskin is safe. (A potato is ceremonially sliced ​​instead.) However, when the film occasionally arms American viewers’ own misunderstandings about Africa against them, it offers nothing to replace them.

None of this is to say that the movie is without merit. With the costume designer Ruth Carter from Black Panther, who this time is on hand to make the costumes, at least scenes like the dance performance of this film (with the always-on-watch Teyana Taylor) are wonderful to watch. The African aristocrats are beautifully dressed, with robes and robes that give credibility to their commanding presence. But those insignia can only do so much to beautify the Lackadaisian Africana below.

Is it too much to ask in 2021 to ask a film based in Africa to pay some attention to its setting? The film dutifully reiterates its 1980s predecessor blow by blow, which is an entirely different topic, but for as much time as it spends on the African continent, we might have hoped this was a domain it did some in could have brought in new ideas. Instead, this time I’ll complain to my mother about the film before she can hit me.

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