In 1988, Eddie Murphy teamed up with his Trading Places director John Landis and put the fictional African nation of Zamunda on the map in the hit rom-com Coming to America.
But the homeland of Murphy’s Prince Akeem existed only on the perimeters of that film, which was set almost entirely in Queens, New York, where the prince had come in search of a wife.
But Zamunda is a star attraction in Coming 2 America, the decades-later sequel dropping March 5 on Amazon Prime.
But since the fictional African nation had such a fleeting appearance in first film, director Craig Brewer and Oscar-winning costume designer Ruth E Carter realised they had the luxury of performing a major Zamunda makeover.
“I decided that 30 years ago, we weren’t going to remember all the details (of the original Zamunda),” said Carter, the first black woman to win a costume design Oscar for her stunning Afrofuturistic work on Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther.
She is no stranger to working with evocative ideas, having collaborated with Spike Lee and his 40 Acres and a Mule production company for years.
“When I went back and looked at the (original) film I saw that there were things that we needed to keep and there were things that we could move forward with,” she said. “Especially because the story is about a boy returning to Zamunda as opposed to going to America.”
Coming 2 America depicts Zamunda as a vibrant, proudly African place, but one that is far more footloose than Ryan Coogler’s vision of Black Panther’s Wakanda.
A central decision to update the look and fashions of Zamunda came about early, as Carter and Brewer knew they had to remake Akeem’s dad’s outfit. In the original, King Jaffe Joffer (James Earl Jones) royal duds sported a lion’s mane and head on its back. That just wouldn’t fly with today’s audiences, Carter recalls telling Brewer. (The two previously worked together on Netflix’s hilarious Dolemite is my Name, also starring Murphy.)
“We were cruelty-free,” Carter said. “We didn’t bring back the dead animal on the shoulders. “(Akeem’s) daughters would not allow it. We had a beautiful scarf, and that’s how we moved into the future of Zamunda.”
The move served as both opportunity and inspiration to reinvent the entire country of Zamunda, although elements of the original served as the foundation.
“It was like, OK we know the original palace looked this way. We’re not going to do that original palace,” said Carter.
Carter praised Brewer for bringing his love of “Memphis soul to the table”, and appreciated how his background in musical theater work influenced the way he worked with the cast, which includes John Amos, Arsenio Hall and Wesley Snipes as well as musical acts Gladys Knight and Salt-N-Pepa.
The 49-year-old Brewer started acting and directing while spending part of his youth and early adulthood in the Bay Area. In the early ‘90s, he helmed two A Christmas Carol productions at Walnut Creek’s Regional Centre for the Arts.
Brewer spent a few years living in Vallejo while his mother Gail — who now lives with him in Memphis — was an English and drama teacher for the Mount Diablo School District.
Brewer always loved movies, and one of his favourite filmmakers was John Landis, who directed Coming to America as well as The Blue Brothers, amongst others. Brewer remembers going with his father to watch a Landis double bill An American Werewolf in London and Kentucky Fried Movie while in Vallejo.
Brewer created a stir at the Sundance Film Festival in 2005 with his second full-length feature Hustle & Flow, starring Terrence Howard and Taraji P Henson. His resume includes directing Black Snake Moan in 2007 with Samuel L Jackson and Christina Ricci, a remake of Footloose and episodes of TV’s Empire, among other works.
He was particularly excited about making a sequel of Coming to America since the original was directed by one of his idols who also relished musical sequences, as evidenced in his 1980 film The Blue Brothers. There are a number of energetic dance/music sequences in Coming 2 America.
Brewer says the musical interludes in Landis films are capable of delivering both camp and truly memorable moments.
“I try to do that in my films,” he says.
Murphy approached Brewer about directing Coming 2 America while they were working together on Dolemite.
“I got to do a little bit of work on the script,” he said. “It was very important to me to have certain soulful moments in the film because it’s important to me that there be a beating heart in the movie as well as humour. And then we were off to the races.”
If Coming 2 America proves to be another hit, there might even be more sequels, in a more expedient manner.
“I can see this story moving on,” Brewer said. “But let’s see what the world thinks of Coming 2 America. The movie is really a celebration of the first Coming to America and of those characters,” including such beloved Queens denizens as soul singer Randy Watson (and his band Sexual Chocolate) and preacher Reverend Brown, who makes appearances in the sequel.
“We wouldn’t want to do anything that wasn’t special.” – Mercury News