If you don’t believe that one plane ride can drastically change the course of your life, actress Nomzamo Mbatha is living proof.
When she found out she was cast as Mirembe, Lavelle’s love interest, in Coming 2 America, a long-anticipated sequel of the cult classic Coming to America, Mbatha was given only 72 hours to fly from Abu Dhabi to the United States and sign on the dotted line.
Before she was acting alongside legends like Eddie Murphy and James Earl Jones, she was dominating household screens in her home country of South Africa, where she starred in films and television shows such as Tell Me Sweet Something and Umlilo.
Since Coming 2 America’s positive reception, the international star has not only been able to make her mark on Hollywood, but also leave an impact as an ambassador for globally underrepresented people.
BAZAAR.com caught up with Mbatha one day after the sensational virtual release of Coming 2 America to discuss her family-like bond with the cast, representation, and inclusivity for black women in film, as well as her global humanitarian work with the United Nations’ refugee agency, UNHCR.
Q: This movie has an all-star cast full of black excellence, from Eddie Murphy to James Earl Jones to Gladys Knight. Did you have any special moments on set with any particular cast member?
A: I’d probably say Shari Headley (who plays Lisa McDowell). She put her hand on my shoulders, she said, “Stop playing small. This is your moment. You deserve to be here. You are so deserving. I’ve been where you are, and I played small. And I don’t want you to do that.”
And I just bawled my eyes out. I was just crying like, “Oh, my God, thank you. Thank you for reminding me of that,” because it is hard to be far from home and be surrounded by such ginormous figures, and doubt, you know?
Then probably the funniest one was how we were running lines, and it was Eddie’s first day on set, and it’s dead quiet, because it’s Eddie, right. Everyone’s running their lines, and then it was my time to say them, and then I start speaking, and then he jolts up and he’s like, “Wait a minute. She got the real accent. She makes mine sound like sh*t!”
Q: The original film is so full of nostalgia. Can you tell us about the first time you watched the movie?
A: My earliest memory of Coming to America, I must’ve been, like, eight or nine-years-old, because my dad had the VHS tape. He would just play it all the time. But I think it’s not until I was a teenager where I thought, Yeah, I definitely should not have seen that when I was eight or nine. Because then you get the context of the movie.
It’s got to be one of my top five favourite films of all time, because it just gave a different light in a different lens to how Africans were portrayed in films, or in sketches. It just gave this hyper-imaginative black fairy-tale of royal regalia and kingdoms of Africa. I really liked what it did for the time.
And it shows what a cultural impact the film has had, because so many people have been influenced from that. Prince Akeem is the original black prince and Black Panther was the first black superhero film. So many cultural impacts came from this film, so it was a lot to carry.
Q: You brought up that idea of Pan-Africanism, and I know that this is obviously a comedy and it’s all an imaginative world, however it does deal with themes across the diaspora. As a South African woman, I was wondering, how do you feel the film handled those themes?
A: One thing that I’ve been reading in the reviews is that it’s definitely a more refined view. You have so many cultural nods, and you can tell there was a lot of research that was done, because you get [costume designer] Ruth Carter who is so culturally on point, fingers on the pulse when it comes to the threads, and representing, and the crowns being part of creating that atmosphere and being the winners of the film. This film is lighthearted, it’s supposed to be that, but I think now is the time for the cross-pollination to continue.
It’s not just about including a South African actress. Now, it’s a question of can Amazon partner with a production company, whether in the diaspora, or even on the African continent to create films with a more zoned-in lens? I think that’s what I truly hope for, but I’m also grateful that we’re learning from each other.
Q: What advice would you give to actresses who want to push past that glass ceiling or break into industries that have been gate-kept away from black communities?
The first is collaboration is key, no man is an island. Number two, Issa Rae said something that has stuck with me for a very long time. She said network across. We’re always constantly chasing the networking up and who’s the boss, and just network across. And I loved that. Also trust the journey and trust the process. A little, every day. …
Last and most importantly, I think we’re so fixated about having a seat at the table that we’re not concentrating on building the different rooms. I’m inspired by the Asian community, especially right now in the filmmaking space, in that they’re telling their films their way in the most artistic and beautiful way, and its young filmmakers as well, there’s so much to learn from them. And I just want that for us. It’s great to have a seat at the table, it’s great to be in the room, but can we also just concentrate on building different rooms? Let’s just build rooms ourselves. – Excerpted from Harper’s Bazaar