Eddie Murphy matures in John Landis’ cult feelgood comedy
I adored Eddie Murphy as a kid; I mean, this guy was in my VCR almost as much as Arnold Schwarzenegger. He had so much energy and natural charm, boasting a million-dollar smile and a lovable dash of delinquency that gave his comedy an anarchic edge. I didn’t always understand his jokes. I was way too young to pick up on all the cultural references and social commentaries, or the fact that, as pugnacious smart-ass Axel Foley, Murphy was something of a landmark actor in racial terms. Black actors generally played second fiddle in action movies back in the early 1980s, be it as a screenplay’s crook or sidekick — common traits Murphy would incorporate into a single character in Walter Hill’s buddy cop thriller 48 Hrs. — but the actor was the unchallenged star of Martin Brest’s innovative action comedy Beverly Hills Cop, buoyed by the kind of signature theme song that allowed him an almost superhero status.
What I also didn’t realise was that Eddie Murphy was once the edgiest comedian on the planet, a far cry from the marquee star I had him pegged for. Murphy hadn’t planned on being a comedian per se, but had decided he was going to be famous early in life, developing multiple characters in the school lunch hall and imitating his movie idol Peter Sellers for crowds of hysterical teenagers. It was at 15, after hearing peer and eventual friend Richard Pryor’s risqué That Nigger’s Crazy album, that Murphy decided to pursue stand-up comedy full-time, secretly skipping school to perform in clubs before earning a prominent spot on the hip and hugely popular Saturday Night Live roster of the early 1980s, a show blessed by the likes of Jim Belushi, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Billy Crystal, Harry Shearer and Martin Short.
Murphy shot to fame, and notoriety, with 1983‘s blockbuster stand-up gig Delirious, a show that left hugely popular musclehead Mr. T hunting him down at celebrity parties with the intention of kicking his ass, and he wasn’t the only one to take offence to Murphy’s balls-out supershow. The gay community was particularly miffed about Murphy’s homosexual slurs, something that was later absorbed into his film career. Particularly sensitive was his trivialising of the AIDS virus, which was in the throes of a huge epidemic at the time, leading to widespread prejudice across America based on fear and a lack of understanding of the disease. In 1996, Murphy apologised for his behaviour in a public statement that read, “I deeply regret any pain all this has caused… I know how serious an issue AIDS is the world over. I know that AIDS isn’t funny. It’s 1996, and I’m a lot smarter about AIDS now.”
Murphy would also become a target for the Reagan voting white mainstream media during his Delirious pomp, who denounced his profanity-based act and the offensive concepts it peddled, though one has to believe their main reason for smearing the star was far more self-serving. Murphy may have set out to shock, but like the best stand-up acts he had something to say beneath the bravado, giving a social voice to those without a platform. The comedian was particularly outspoken about ‘Reaganomics’, a ‘trickle-down’ political theory that backed big business and effected the most vulnerable, something ethnic minorities would typically take the brunt of.
[blissfully ignorant of what this means] Yes! Yes! Fuck you too!Prince Akeem
By the latter part of the 1980s, Murphy was known more as a movie star than a comedian, which spoke to his superstar presence and universal appeal. His second collaboration with Trading Places director John Llandis is indicative of that, giving us a softer, more mainstream Murphy. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. 1988‘s romantic comedy Coming to America is more conventional and broad-reaching than some of his earlier works, with less of an emphasis on the bad boy persona and crude language he had become synonymous with both onscreen and off. The fact that Coming to America was a huge part of my single-digit childhood speaks volumes about Murphy’s shift in tone in what was a clear case of image management for the towering star.
There are still instances of the coarse flamboyance for which Murphy was renown, like the moment when the self-exiled prince Akeem stands on the balcony of a shitty rented apartment in Queens and shouts,“Yes! Yes! Fuck you too!,” in response to a curmudgeon local neck-deep in the resentment of widespread poverty. There are other moments of profanity and lewd humour which probably warranted a 15 certificate at the time, but on the whole it’s a sweeter Murphy delivering a suitably ironic, heartfelt brand of humour. As a youngster growing up in the 1980s, the movie was an absolute joy to behold, and I’m delighted to confirm that not much has changed.
As a lead character, Akeem, the unimaginably wealthy African prince who flees to the downtrodden streets of Queens, New York to find… well, his future queen, is something of a digression for the mischievous star. Akeem has plenty of spark as the cultural outsider mesmerised by a life of liberating poverty, but the crude quips, antagonistic sketches and full-throttle heroics are almost totally absent save for a scene in which our future king, working as a mop and bucket boy in brazen McDonald’s rip-off McDowell’s, intercepts Samuel L. Jackson’s stick-up artist and finally makes an impression on his money-mad boss and future father-in-law (it never ceases to amaze me how many movies Jackson pops up in). Instead, Murphy plays the humble, love-struck gentleman ― the very antithesis of the wealth-obsessed 80s. In the ultimate irony, Akeem’s untold riches would dwarf even the most ruthless capitalist with dollar signs for eyeballs.
Financial disparity, perhaps even more than race, was a running theme in Murphy’s vast and varied 80s catalogue, the subtext being that the two are invariably inseparable. In 1982‘s Trading Places, a movie that acts as a commentary on inherited privilege, Murphy plays Billy Ray Valentine, a shameless grifter chosen as the pawn in an decadent game that tests the theory of heredity vs environment. In what is essentially Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper with 80s sensibilities, Dan Aykroyd’s white investment broker, Louis Winthorpe, is stripped of his class status, Murphy’s conman promoted to a position of vast wealth and privilege. In a cute and welcome nod to the movie, Coming to America features a meta appearance from the unconscionable swines behind this social experiment as vagrants who are given a second shot at the big time after Akeem, tired of servant Semmi’s opulent use of funds, dumps a bag of money in their laps.
Beverly Hills Cop, a movie that wears race on its sleeve even more emphatically, plays a similar card. Murphy’s action opus may have taken great strides in putting a black star front and centre, but there were still cautious steps taken in appealing to a broader audience. For one thing, long-time Axel friend, Jenny Summers (Lisa Eilbacher), a character who would typically represent a film’s love interest, was completely platonic, the result of studios having to appease southern state theatres, many of which refused to screen movies featuring interracial relations. Though Murphy was often full-on with the race-baiting, the film’s title and premise once again placed an emphasis on wealth, Axel’s Detroit hard-ass a fish out of water in the snobbish realms of one of the world’s wealthiest neighbourhoods.
Coming to America is arguably the most powerful of Murphy’s racial commentary vehicles while taking a less aggressive stance, refusing to directly attack or even acknowledge the institutional bias of white influence. For one thing, black romantic comedies were a rarity at the time. In fact, barring 1898’s 29-second silent film Something Good-Negro Kiss and 1975’s Diana Ross and Billy Dee Williams led romantic melodrama Mahogany, Coming to America is the first movie with black romantic leads to embrace the mainstream romcom formula that exists today, inspiring a 90s boom period for black romantic comedies that include 1990’s House Party, 1991’s Strictly Business and Murphy’s own Boomerang. What set these films apart, as well as featuring all black casts and black composers/soundtracks, is that the characters exist in environments where being black is the norm, any problems that arise mostly extricated from direct white influence. Coming to America even portrays black characters of vast wealth and privilege, of royalty, something that was almost unheard of. It was truly groundbreaking stuff in 1988.
Coming to America takes a less polemical approach to race, smartly parodying the whole subject in a series of priceless scenes set in a black-owned barbershop straight out of the 1960s, Murphy and co-star Arsenio Hall tackling multiple roles thanks in no small part to long-time Landis collaborator Rick Baker’s jaw-dropping makeup effects. Here, Murphy’s geriatric barbershop owner and his curmudgeon band of cronies discuss boxing’s greatest, admonishing Cassius Clay’s religious moniker Muhammad Ali with similar prejudice while dismissing white Italian boxer Rocky Marciano, who famously knocked out barbershop favourite Joe Louis on October 26, 1951 (though it should be noted that, at 37, Louis’ best days were long behind him). Murphy’s reaction to having this fact pointed out is just priceless. You can imagine debates like this going on every day in 80s Brooklyn.
The reason why Coming to America appealed to me so strongly as a kid was its emphasis on character, the most fascinating of whom, at least back then, existing under mounds of transformative latex. I knew there was something peculiar going on, even beyond the vibrant sketches and amped-up parody, but the makeup was so convincing I couldn’t put my finger on what that something was. The colourful ravings of the movie’s no-nonsense barbershop dwellers had me in stitches, as did Hall’s James Brown-styled preacher. Murphy even manages to pull off a white, Jewish geriatric in what is a mesmerising turn, something that didn’t occur to me until years after the makeup became obvious in regards to those other characters. It was a smart repost to decades of Blackface white actors, which became popular in the U.S. after the Civil War as white performers played characters that demeaned and dehumanized African Americans.
Oh there they go. There they go, every time I start talkin ’bout boxing, a white man got to pull Rocky Marciano out their ass. That’s their one, that’s their one. Rocky Marciano. Rocky Marciano. Let me tell you something once and for all. Rocky Marciano was good, but compared to Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano ain’t shit.Clarence the Barber
Even better are the movie’s non-latex characters. John Amos is a hoot as wealth-obsessed McDowell patriarch Cleo, a self-made man who longs for daughter Lisa (Shari Headley) to tie the knot with Soul Glo heir apparent, Darryl Jenks (Eriq La Salle), another black character of inherited wealth with distinctly American values, even going as far as announcing their engagement at a house party that leads his first-born into the arms of Akeem, who was bestowed upon him the honour of party servant having foiled the attempted McDowell’s store robbery. Cleo comes across as mulish and even obsequious to begin with, but he has a different fabric to the silver spoon Darryl, his money lust tied more to his own deprived upbringing and the loss his wife. When James Earl Jones’ obnoxious king offers to buy off his daughter, Cleo unleashes the everyman bad ass of old. As important as her financial security is to him, Lisa is not for sale at any price.
Hall is impudence personified as the infectiously vibrant Semmi, a servant to such riches that he leads a life of luxury comparable to your typical New York millionaire, his duties closer to friend, confidant and minder than anything demeaning. He may not have rose petals thrown at his feet or his ‘Royal penis’ cleaned on a daily basis, but he has the pick of some of the most gorgeous extras I’ve ever witnessed in a single movie, with a living quarters that trumps the Grand Penthouse Suite of the New York Plaza. When he winds up in a rat-infested dump at the behest of his master, who wants a girl who loves him for who he is rather than a chosen bride who will hop on one leg and bark like a dog on command, he transforms their room into an upmarket bachelor pad complete with top of the line hot tub, one that Frankie Faison’s wonderfully cynical landlord is only too happy to inherit.
Of all those characters, there’s nothing like an unconscionable heel, and La Salle’s deeply disingenuous Darryl ticks all the right boxes. Darryl is the personification of everything Akeem is attempting to distance himself from, and despite the illusory lure of wealth, the complete antithesis of Cleo’s work ethic mantra. Daryll is a complete fraud, a lazy coward who feels that money conquers all. For him wealth means the ability to toss milkshakes at lowly minimum wagers, the right to publicly humiliate the likes of Akeem, or at least the person he believes Akeem to be, and, most damning of all, the ability to own and control any woman he wants, the very oppression Akeem is trying to escape. In an early scene, after passing on the chance to add a smidgen of his vast wealth to the church collection plate, he even has the gall to take credit for the bundle of cash left by Murphy’s king-in-waiting. The guy is rotten to the core.
Daryll’s superficial nature is perfectly captured by the ludicrous ‘Soul Glo’ commercial that Akeem and Semmi are confronted with while out braving the New York cold, their first glimpse at the commercial puffery of modern capitalism. A product that transforms the popular eyesore that was the perm into a beacon of oily grandeur, the ad in question is a faux-sensual travesty of manufactured conceit, with a play on words that has the temerity to suggest that what you’re buying into is more than just a product, but love and life itself. Composed by Chic super producer Nile Rodgers, who would ironically cite the track as his “proudest moment”, the fictional ‘Soul Glo’ jingle is a work of satirical art; a wildly self-satisfied parody of modern marketing hypocrisy that never fails to leave me bawling. It’s pure magic, and one of many reasons why the film has attained such cult status.
Coming to America wasn’t all fun and games. In fact, for all its criticisms on conceit and bravado, there was plenty to go around during production. Behind the scenes, Murphy and Landis clashed rather severely, something the director attributed to the star’s ballooning ego. “The guy on Trading Places was young and full of energy and curious and funny and fresh and great,” the filmmaker would recall. “The guy on Coming to America was the pig of the world – the most unpleasant, arrogant, bullshit entourage… just an asshole… On Coming to America, we clashed quite a bit because he was such a pig; he was so rude to people. I was like, ‘Jesus Christ, Eddie! Who are you?’ But I told him, ‘You can’t be late. If you’re late again, I quit.’ We had a good working relationship, but our personal relationship changed because he just felt that he was a superstar and that everyone had to kiss his ass. He was a jerk.” The fact that Murphy portrays a character who loathes the arrogance of wealth and prestige is the ultimate irony.
Murphy, however, had a very different version of events, claiming that Landis patronised him throughout the shoot, “We had a tussling confrontation… We didn’t come to blows. Personalities didn’t mesh… He directed me in Trading Places when I was just starting out as a kid, but he was still treating me like a kid five years later during Coming to America. And I hired him to direct the movie! I was gonna direct Coming to America myself, but I knew that Landis had just done three fucked-up pictures in a row and that his career was hanging by a thread after the Twilight Zone trial. I figured the guy was nice to me when I did Trading Places, so I’d give him a shot… I was going out of my way to help this guy, and he fucked me over. Now he’s got a hit picture on his resumé, a movie that made over $200 million, as opposed to him coming off a couple of fucked-up movies – which is where I’d rather see him be right now.”
Wrong. You are a prince who has never tied his shoes. Believe me, I tied my own shoes once. It is an overrated experience.King Jaffe Joffer
Back in the realms of fantasy, Coming to America is pure wish-fulfilment, still with enough of an acerbic edge to be identifiable as an Eddie Murphy vehicle, but wrapped in a fairy tale bow that sees our warring families and all notions of pomposity bow before the irresistible nature of true love. Akeem and Lisa’s coming together is sweet, honest and pure, and, most crucially, it never really descends into schmaltzy territory. Lisa is more than your average lovelorn honey. She’s smart, independent and defiant, and her affections don’t come easy. Even an obscenely 80s set-piece on a subway train manages to stay grounded, despite a crowd of bright-eyed spectators pining for the kind of mushy embrace that a lesser movie would have succumbed to.
Part of the film’s resolve is down to Murphy’s untypically controlled performance. Sure, he gets to let off steam as a barber extolling the virtues of black history — in fact, he practically whistles at the ears — and Akeem is afforded the odd comical flourish, but here Murphy takes on the role of sensible man in absurd environments, first one of obscene privilege and even zanier expectations, and then in a society to which he is so alien he can barely operate a mop. Instead of triggering the comedy with the outward bravado of a character like Axel Foley, Akeem is often the butt of the joke. It’s one thing hiding poverty from a potential spouse, particularly when her father, your boss, wants the absolute best for his princess, but when you’re trying to hide your wealth, the irony is palpable, and Murphy is a first class pawn.
Coming to America may offer some resistance, but the film provides the Hollywood finale mainstream audiences desire. Even the seemingly irredeemable Daryll, breaking the fourth wall in a move that proves cannily endearing, is afforded a happy ending, hooking up with Lisa’s equally superficial sister, Patrice (Allison Dean), a sassy hellcat who I had such a crush on as a kid. I guess there’s someone for everyone.
It’s all a little idealistic, and for many too much of a departure to showcase Murphy at his brilliant, anarchic best. The fact that Africa’s inherited riches are at the centre of our picture-perfect finale also smacks of hypocrisy, indulging in the very sentiments that the film so savagely lampoons, but there’s a maturity to Murphy’s central performance, a yielding to mainstream sensibilities that he manages to pull off without sacrificing his integrity as a comic spitfire. Coming to America will warm your heart and make your soul glow, and you won’t need any lousy hair products to get the job done.