There’s plenty of overlap between Coming 2 America, the sequel to the 1988 comedy of the same name, and Black Panther — and not just because the former referenced Wakanda early on in the trailer. For one, both films centre around the homecoming of American sons, who go to their ancestral (and fictitious) African countries with plans to ascend the throne. And, secondly, they’re outfitted by costume designer Ruth E. Carter, who not only became the first Black woman to win the Oscar for her Afrofuturistic looks in the Ryan Coogler’s Marvel film but, last month, was awarded a Walk of Fame star (she’s only the second costume designer to receive the honour).
Taking place 30 years after the original, Coming 2 America follows King Akeem (Eddie Murphy) as he discovers that he has an adult son, Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler), in New York, and brings him to Zamunda as his heir. Like Black Panther's Wakanda, Zamunda's combines a mix of African cultures and aesthetic traditions, which are reflected in Carter’s costumes in a vibrant display of traditional prints, fabrics, and silhouettes.
“I didn't do the same kind of research that I did with Wakanda because I felt like this was more of a lighter, more comedic film. And so, it had to have more [about the] fashion,” Carter tells Refinery 29. “I remember the fashion from the first movie, and I really wanted to honour that, but also bring some new fashion that I was seeing around the internet.” As part of her research for the film, Carter looked at brands like Ikiré Jones founded by Nigerian-American designer Walé Oyéjidé, South Africa’s MAXHOSA by Laduma Ngxokolo and Mantsho by Palesa Mokubung, and the British designer Ozwald Boateng (of Ghanaian descent).
Carter’s talent for combining contemporary silhouettes and traditional designs is best embodied by the fashion of Akeem’s three daughters who are modern-day princesses with distinct looks. While the youngest Tinashe (Akiley Love) wears cutesy styles, the middle daughter Omma (Murphy’s real-life daughter Bella) opts for loose dresses in statement prints. The oldest, Meeka (Kiki Layne), the obvious Zamunda heir to everyone but Akeem, displays the most fearless style of the trio, preferring daring cutouts, tighter fits, and dramatic silhouettes. Her fight-training outfit, a bright yellow-and-green set with a fringe skirt, is especially powerful.
“KiKi told me that she wanted to wear the flag of Zamunda,” says Carter. After finding some flags online, her team sourced matching fabrics to make the outfit. “We added some movement by putting fringe on it and draping it so that it could have a nice flare as she moves around. It was like dance.” In a later scene, Meeka wears an athletic Puma halter dress with cutouts and armbands that read “democrazy” (photo below), created by Jahnkoy, the Brooklyn-based brand by Siberian-born Marusya Kazakova and Burkina Faso-born Burkindy.
For the many intricate crowns and headpieces featured in the film, Carter turned to Laurel DeWitt, a go-to designer for Beyoncé, Jennifer Lopez, and Lady Gaga. “In her showroom, there were crowns waiting for queens to wear them. And I scooped them all up and brought them with me to Atlanta,” she says. “So anytime one of our princesses or our queen was getting ready in the makeup and hair trailer, there were four or five crowns to choose from to match their outfits.” This opulence extended to the rest of the jewelry, too, which Carter worked with several designers to create, including L.A.’s Melody Ehsani, whose designs feature Egyptian Queen Nefertiti, to create.
“We were really interested in everybody who was addressing the African diaspora with their work,” says Carter who, according to WWD, worked with 39 independent designers for the film. “We really were picky about [the pieces] having a regal appearance.”
For the celebrations shown in the film, which involved Carter dressing large groups of people for several scenes, colour was key. “We had dancers, we had a choir, we had the ballroom full of Zamundans. That just gave you license to be colourful,” says Carter. “When you look at a lot of African beadwork, you see a lot of brights, you see a lot of primary colours. When you look at [West African] Ankara fabrics, you see beautiful colour combinations and prints and patterns.”
While the costume designer employed a whole spectrum of jewel-toned colours throughout the project, red was the prominent go-to, appearing on Akeem and the royal palace attendees. In one of the earlier scenes, the Rose Bearer Priestess (Garcelle Beauvais) enters the ballroom in a giant off-the-shoulder ballgown in red-and-gold, which Carter chose after being inspired by the East Indian influences in the first film. “We had permission to mix cultures and borrow, because Zamunda's not hidden by a hologram, it's an immersive place,” she says, referring to Wakanda’s strategic isolation from global influences. After buying the dress off the rack from an Indian designer, Carter wasn’t sure where the gown would fit in. “It took up half of my office,” says Carter. “Everyone was like, ‘What is wrong with Ruth?’” Once she learned of Beauvais’ scene, Carter says she knew the gown was meant for it: “It was such a good opening dress.”
Blue was another prominent colour featured in the film. It first appears on Queen Lisa (Shari Headley) in the form of a sleeveless gown with cowrie bead detail, embellishments frequently used in West African designs. Upon arriving in Zamunda, Lavelle’s mother Mary (Leslie Jones) plucks a blue halter gown in an Ankara print with a matching headpiece from Lisa’s closet. According to Carter, it was an homage to the original film. “[Costume designer] Deborah Nadoolman Landis had big shapes, big headdresses,” says Carter. “It was a really beautiful fit on Leslie… She could actually wear the outfit to the Oscars.”
While Carter collaborated with various designers for the film, most of the costumes were created from scratch. “They're the Royal family, so I didn't want anything like, ‘Hey, that's Tom Ford.’ I didn't want it to be recognizable from the racks in a store somewhere,” says Carter. “I wanted it to feel aspirational.”
But while Coming 2 America is distinctly its own film when it comes to fashion, Carter did include nostalgic nods to the original. When returning to New York, Akeem and Semmi (Arsenio Hall) wear the same grey and navy caped looks they first arrived in Queens in. In a later scene, Akeem also wears the same Mets jacket, and Semmi a blazer. “We had to remake the blazer that Arsenio wore in the first film 30 years ago. That wasn't easy. We had to paint it and find a wool that was close in tone,” she says. “I looked at the sequel for the first time, and I could not see where the old footage ended and the actual new footage began.”
If that’s not the true mark of Ruth E. Carter, I don’t know what is.
Coming 2 America is out on Prime Video.