Opening our discussion of Eddie Murphy’s Coming to America (1988) and Professor Gates’s first chapter in Double Negative on February 13, Professor Davidson led us in an Entry Ticket activity in which students wrote on flashcards their responses to a question and shared them out loud with the class. The question, in light of the film’s sequel slated for 2020, was this: “So … who did Prince Akeem impregnate on that first trip coming to America (and how come we never heard about THAT episode until now)?”
After brainstorming a multitude of comical scenarios that stretch the realm of possibility, Professor Gates focused us on how difficult it is to stay true to the characters in the original film and still get this sequel. Here’s my favorite part of her chapter on Coming to America that I underlined and starred in the margins:
“I want to push back, therefore, against an implicit assumption that mainstream success and black common sense (as discussed in the introduction) are fundamentally incongruous. It is [Eddie] Murphy’s consistent quality of mainstream acceptability, I would argue, that has led many scholars to overlook the sociopolitical significance of Murphy’s work (going back to SNL) and to interpret his film and television performances as inherently apolitical. That claim is based less on Murphy’s actual performances and more on the presumed incompatibility between social critique and crossover success” (40).
What I love about this argument–that just because something is mainstream doesn’t mean it can’t be social critique–is that it opens so many films, including Coming to America and beyond, to serious critical engagements that may have been overlooked or dismissed for being “too mainstream.” It makes me think: doesn’t a work of art in the “mainstream” have an even wider audience and potential impact even if the social critique is subtle? Doesn’t “mainstream” art have the potential to make social critique mainstream by degree?
Professor Gates showed us a clip of John Landis, who directed Coming to America, saying that no one thought of it as a Black film. Even though Paramount did not intend to make it a Black film, and did not have Black audiences in mind, and Landis was trying to sell it as a “colorblind” film, it clearly is a Black film due to Murphy’s influence. Talking us through key scenes in Coming to America, Gates pointed out the depth of its references that make it a Black film–and very much Murphy’s film–from a casual reference to That’s my Mama (1974-5), to cameos of Murphy’s friends, such as Clint Smith. Clearly, we know that Black cast films do well in box offices but there’s inherent racism in the logic of Hollywood that shapes how films are billed and framed for audiences, as evidenced by Landis’s interview.
Murphy’s critique goes even deeper in his presentation of Best Picture in 1988:
Professor Gates reads Coming to America as Murphy’s pivot film. It had real import and impact, and it’s circulated and referenced everywhere but in spaces we haven’t been paying critical attention to, such as Kandi Burruss’s “African” but really Coming-to-America themed wedding, in “juices and berries” hair products, in memes about what to wear to go see Black Panther, and beyond. Professor Gates put emphasis on the importance of critiquing form over representation, something to pay attention to as we keep watching and reading this semester.