We Rewatched A Classic Black Rom-Com With Romance Queen Jasmine Guillory — Here’s Her Honest Critique
Welcome to Love Like This?, a romance column where we, Kathleen Newman-Bremang and Ineye Komonibo, revisit some of the most romantic — or not, in hindsight — scenes in Black film and TV history. In this edition, we’re joined by rom-com queen Jasmine Guillory.
Coming To America (1988) is a wild and risky romantic comedy to revisit in 2022, but Jasmine Guillory picks it anyway. We’re on a Zoom call determining which classic Black romance we’re going to tackle for this month’s column, and it’s Guillory who chooses chaos by suggesting we rewatch Eddie Murphy as Prince Akeem of Zamunda move to America to find his match in Queens baddie, Lisa McDowell (Shari Headley). In the film, Akeem disguises himself as a goat herder turned student working at a fast food restaurant in order to woo Lisa under false pretenses, and to escape the arranged marriage waiting for him back in the fictional African kingdom of Zamunda. Shenanigans (along with problematic jokes and bad accents) ensue with his goofy sidekick Semmi (a young Arsenio Hall) as Prince Akeem searches for his fairytale ending.
Guillory knows a thing or two about fairytales. She’s written some of the best contemporary Black romances the genre has to offer (The Wedding Date and The Proposal are some of our faves) and her latest, available next week, is a reimagining of The Beauty and the Beast — another classic romance with a prince in disguise (albeit reluctantly). So it makes sense that Guillory suggests Coming To America, one of the few Black rom-coms to tackle a staple trope in the romance genre: the regular girl who falls in love with a prince. The John Landis-directed film may centre around a romance, but it’s also a vehicle for Eddie Murphy’s comedy, and it’s his star power that has turned Coming To America into a cult classic after it debuted in ‘88 to mixed reviews. The LA Times called it a “hollow and wearying Eddie Murphy fairy tale,” and The New York Times described the romance as “tepid” and the gags only “mildly funny.” Others praised Murphy for finally doing a film with an all-Black cast (until then he had been known for being the sole Black actor in white-led projects) and celebrated Murphy and Hall’s comedic chemistry. One particularly scathing review from The Hollywood Reporter slammed Murphy and Headley’s connection: “There’s no kindred spirits/soulmate urgency to their romantic pairing. Who cares whether these two get together or not?”
Well, we care. But all these years later, would we really want what Prince Akeem and Lisa have? With Guillory’s help, we break down what exactly holds up — and what absolutely does not — in this rom-com and debate whether marrying a prince is really the stuff that fairytales should be made of. (Respectfully, we’re pretending that the sequel, Coming 2 America, doesn’t exist.)
The Scene(s): The final pivotal moments of Prince Akeem and Lisa’s romance actually unfold in two scenes, not one. First, there’s the grand gesture on the subway. After Akeem’s father (King of Zamunda, played by a stern James Earl Jones) reveals his son’s identity and tells Lisa that the Prince is only in America for a good time, not a long time, she flees to her getaway car — the New York City transit system. Prince Akeem follows her underground and officially declares his love in the presence of some overly-invested commuters. When Lisa confronts Prince Akeem for lying about being literal royalty, he defends himself by stating that he only wanted her to love him for who he is. He also offers to renounce his throne. “I do not care about my crown, all I care about is you,” he says passionately. In the moment, it’s simply not enough to win Lisa back. “I’m sorry, I can’t,” she replies as she dumps him and leaves Akeem with a broken heart and the diamond earrings he gave her (which he gifts to a lucky subway goer).
In the film's romantic conclusion, however, Lisa has a change of heart. Just as Prince Akeem has resigned himself to going back to Zamunda to marry the poor girl his parents have chosen to be his wife, Lisa surprises Akeem — and the rest of us — by unveiling herself as the woman under the veil on his wedding day. They share a kiss in front of the entire kingdom, get married, and ride off into the sunset to rule as Prince and Princess, and husband and wife.
Does The Grand Gesture Hold Up? The Subway Scene
Jasmine Guillory: The declaration is great! I love everything that Akeem says. I love the entire subway scene and all the people on the subway, even though it is not a very realistic New York thing — New Yorkers on the subway would never be so invested in this romance, but they were adorable. I usually don’t like public declarations; I wrote a whole book about that [The Proposal]. But the difference here is that this was spontaneous as opposed to him planning this whole thing. Akeem had to say all of this in front of these people. He wasn't doing it in public because of the publicness in order to get Lisa to say “yes,” he was doing it in public because that's the only place he could find her. I also really appreciated that after all was said and done, even with the strangers chiming in, Lisa was like, "Yeah, no, I can't do it" and left. That is one of the things that I loved about this scene. She needed to take some time, like, Everything you said is great, but I’ve got to go. I liked that the pressure didn't get to her.
I'm just imagining being on the train, commuting and someone says "I love you” for the first time. It probably smells in that train car. There might be a rat or even a dead person around (because that's what happens in New York). The vibe is not romantic.
Kathleen Newman-Bremang: I liked the setting in the subway too! It felt ordinary and real — not a spectacle — which I appreciated. I liked the character arc and the growth that Prince Akeem went through. At first, he thinks he has to win Lisa’s love through money (the collection plate and by giving her those diamond earrings) even though she doesn’t know he’s rich. But he thinks throwing money at someone is the only way to show love because that's all he's ever known as a prince. The fact that his final, big Hail Mary moment is just him showing up and expressing himself with nothing to offer but his contrition and a nice ‘fit (the coat/hat combo was doing it for me!), I liked that a lot. I like that he offered to renounce his throne. I'm just really having a hard time with Prince Akeem as a person. Eddie Murphy is so handsome, and he is so good at being a romantic lead, but with this character, there’s just too many lies on lies on lies. It’s giving scammer, swindler, bamboozler. Can scammers be rich? Anyway, I don’t think his declaration on the subway covers enough of why he lied. He says, “I’m the man you fell in love with — should it matter that I’m a prince?” Which is valid, but feels like he was testing her by lying, and I don’t like that. So I don’t love Prince Akeem, but as far as whether it holds up as a grand gesture, I'm going to tentatively say yes.
Ineye Komonibo: One, I don't like public grand gestures. Two, the ambince of a romantic moment really matters. I care a lot about the environment of a grand gesture, and I thought that the train was especially disgusting. I'm an NYC resident, so I'm just imagining being on the train, commuting and someone says "I love you” for the first time. It probably smells in that train car. There might be a rat or even a dead person around (because that's what happens in New York). The vibe is not romantic. However, I do like what he was saying. This is who I am. This is what I have. I will give up anything and everything for you. Like Jasmine said, the words and the intention were there. The execution wasn’t. I'm a simple girl, but don't ever confess your love on a train. Just don't do it.
KNB: You are a simple girl, but this is a simple grand gesture! I think it holds up. Of all the things in this movie that do not hold up — and there are many — this scene, the romance, and the chemistry still do.
JG: The romance holds up!
Does The Grand Gesture Hold Up? The Wedding Reveal
KNB: I was like, wait, what? With no conversation? It's just, "Surprise! I'm your bride!” There was not enough of a payoff for me, and it just felt rushed. We basically went straight from Lisa turning Prince Akeem down in the subway to her showing up to marry him. It doesn't give that big, sweeping, romantic conclusion that I think most rom-coms should have.
I understand what they were trying to do with this full circle moment. We saw the bride reveal scene in the beginning of the movie, and Lisa’s moment is supposed to mirror that. I can understand why they did it, but it just didn't hit me the way I wanted it to. I didn't remember this movie very well, and I didn't remember how much I was invested in these two characters, or how much I loved that Prince Akeem was so into Lisa. I felt that their romance, and their chemistry was real, but in that Surprise Bride moment, it just felt so unreal and too much like a stunt.
JG: I agree that “Surprise! I'm your bride!” probably not the way to do it, but I think it's a good rom-com moment. It came full circle. There are a lot of public gestures in this movie, including the one that failed for her, with her terrible ex-boyfriend (played by a perpetually fine Eriq LaSalle), so I liked that this was her moment. But yeah, they could have had that sweeping, emotional element if only they'd had a better conversation in the car afterwards. The conversation was just, "You would give all of this up for me?" and "Yes!" But I wanted Lisa to say something about why she changed her mind. I wanted them to have a discussion about their relationship and the world they live in, as opposed to just, "Okay, we're married now."
IK: Generally, I'm rarely rooting for the man to get what he wants, but I do actually like that Prince Akeem ultimately got his fairytale moment. He went all the way to America for that fairytale, chasing his dream, romancing this woman. Then she flipped it on him. Lisa really said, “Actually, I'm the Prince Charming of this situation, and I'm going to give you the happily ever after that you’ve been waiting for.” That's such a fun play on the fairytale trope that made for a cute moment.
Rate The Kiss:
JG: It's interesting, because they do have a lot of chemistry in this movie, but this kiss has absolutely none. I think it's because of the camera panning back to see them kissing. We don’t get a good angle. I give it a 3/10.
IK: Booooo — tomato, tomato! So boring. I thought, are they even kissing? The way that Eddie Murphy turned his head to block her face from the camera? Horrible! It's a two out of 10 for me.
KNB: I'm going to give it a four, because the length of the kiss was decent. But you're right, you didn't see a lot. It was a disappointment.
IK: Were folks kissing kissing in movies during this time? Because maybe people were still being prudish back then...
I think I would want a love like this, because I do feel like they legitimately fell in love. Akeem loved Lisa for the right reasons. And I think Lisa fell for who Akeem was as a person, for how thoughtful and kind he was.
Could It Be Me?
KNB: This is the section where I always show myself as a bird, as Ineye would say, because it would always be me. I actually think I would've done the exact same thing in the subway scene. I would've listened then been like, "I need some time. This is too much. I have to think about this." I also think that I would maybe show up on the wedding day. If I liked Prince Akeem as a person, which clearly Lisa does, I could see it. I love surprises! And because of what Akeem said on the subway, we know he's all in, so there's not that much risk with the surprise; I know that if I show up, he's going to be so happy, and he's going to want to marry me. So aside from the fact that it's wild to do a reveal on a wedding day and also the fact that I don't love big weddings, I can see it.
JG: Totally agree. The subway scene is very romantic, but I also would've felt betrayed by all of the lies, and felt pressured by the hecklers, so I’d want some time to think it over. Even though there are so many problems with the wedding reveal and just being like, "Look, it's me under the veil!” I also kind of love it? And I do love the idea of Lisa being like, "Okay, now it's going to be my turn to make a big gesture." Throughout the whole movie, he tricked her as to who he was, so now she gets a little bit of payback. That's probably not the best way to start a marriage, but it's still fun!
IK: Okay now! Jasmine's a little toxic. I'm feeling it, but it’s a little bit toxic [laughs]. As for me, I'm probably not going to roll up to the altar with his mom and the whole kingdom of Zamunda there. But I definitely would have showed up on the wedding day like, "I'm choosing you, and this is what we're going to do." And I'm going to have my big speech.
KNB: Hold up…you're going to give a romantic speech to a man?
JGL: I read this column, so even I know you never say this.
IK: I'm not saying that it’s gonna be a romantic speech, but I would definitely tell him, "Listen, I love you. We are doing this, and I am going to become your princess. Don't ever play me like that again. You ready? Okay. Let's go get married!" Wait, maybe that is romantic...
KNB: Here's where I put your business on the streets, Ineye, because this is our first column we've done since you’ve gotten into a relationship: love has changed this bitch. She’s out here making romantic speeches now like she’s Prince Akeem!
IK: Ahem. Yes, I too am a bit of a bird now. I used to think Oh girl, stand up! Now I'm really here like, This right here is my king, and I can absolutely do whatever he wants me to do.
KNB: Ineye is down bad. What a lucky man.
Would You Want A Love Like This? AKA Would You Marry A Prince?
IK: A prince! Now, this is where Kathleen has me messed up. Those other guys we’ve talked about in the past were normal folks, okay? Regular-degular men with 9-5s or even no job at all. I'm not going to fly to another country just to profess my love to a commoner, but a prince? Yes! He has more to lose. People probably approach him for the wrong reasons all the time, so he didn't want to be used — that's why Prince Akeem hid his identity from Lisa. I don't think he should have done it all the way up to the end, but as long as that's the only thing you're hiding, I think we can make it work. Do you have another wife on the side? Do you have another kid? No? Okay. Come on, future king!
KNB: The bar is in hell for princes — got it. But let's get into the fairytale aspect of it all which, Jasmine, you know well because you’ve written modern takes on fairytales. Your new novel, By the Book, is a spin on Beauty and the Beast. So, is the fact that he’s a prince doing it for you?
I don't want that life; it just seems like too much sacrifice, too much pressure, too much effort, too much compromise. And I love attention, but not that much. Is it worth it, sis? Is the dick that good?
JG: I'm glad that Akeem didn't tell Lisa when he dropped a whole bunch of money in the collection plate. I loved that he didn’t tell her he sent the expensive earrings, and I loved him giving the earrings to the old Black lady on the subway. I loved when he wasn’t doing prince-y things and was out of his element. That was just delightful. I think I would want a love like this, because I do feel like they legitimately fell in love. Akeem loved Lisa for the right reasons. And I think Lisa fell for who Akeem was as a person, for how thoughtful and kind he was. I'm not sure about marrying a prince though — that seems scary. To be taken away from your own world and to go to a place so unfamiliar, that would be really difficult. I would need a few years to prep for that. There needed to be transparency about the life Lisa was getting into. That was the thing that was missing with the surprise at the altar; they never had the "what will my life look like in Zamunda?" talk.
KNB: I said this when Meghan Markle married Prince Harry: no, I don't want that life. I don't want anything like it. It just seems like too much sacrifice, too much pressure, too much effort, too much compromise. I love attention, but not that much. And dealing with trash royal parents? Nope. James Earl Jones wasn’t it. Just like when Meghan Markle had to deal with Queen Elizabeth and those colonisers. Is it worth it, sis? Is the dick that good? Couldn’t be me!
IK: I think that there's something to what Jasmine is saying about that fish-out of water trope, because it’s a really great storytelling device. I also really liked the fact that it's a man who had to step out of his place of privilege and navigate in a new world. So, I think that plot-wise, trope-wise, that's always fun.
I know y’all mentioned Meghan and Harry, and I am a Prince Harry stan, but I feel like he didn't prepare Meghan enough. And Akeem didn't prepare Lisa for his life either.
JG: This is not exactly fair to Prince Akeem, because his plan was not to propose to her right then; his parents came and sort of forced the situation. He was trying to keep the romance going for longer, and then I assume would have told her eventually.
IK: True. Still, in the time he was hiding everything from her, he could have just told her the truth. Now, would it be me? Maybe. Zamunda is not the British royal family, not Queen Elizabeth and the Firm. They're Black. The racism element is already out the window because I’d be going from a Black place to a Blacker place. This may be the African bias in me, but I love that reunion of cultures and the potential reconciliation between Black people cross-culturally. We’d be bridging the diaspora!
What Else Doesn’t Hold Up In Coming To America?
JG: Can we talk about Zamunda, the fictional African country in this movie? And its portrayal of Africans in general? There's so much that does not hold up in this movie.
IK: I can say that almost all of the dialogue in this film is very useless. Even when Prince Akeem was on the train confessing his love, I almost couldn’t focus on what was being said because all I could hear was Eddie Murphy’s terrible accent. They just threw together different dialects and accents and tones from what they've heard on TV or movies. There was no research or real thought put into whatsoever, and that really chills me to the bone because Africans are real people.
They could’ve been a bit more practical with it. "Maybe Zamunda is next to Nigeria," and studied up on what Nigerian people sound like. Or “Zamunda is in the southern part of Africa, so maybe they could sound like Zim folks or people from Botswana.” The lack of research was so unfortunate and cliche, and ultimately what made Coming to America, in my opinion, not a classic. I know I’m biased because I'm Nigerian, but I literally had to sever fact from fiction to be like, Okay, this is a completely fake, inaccurate, cliche thing. And I had to enjoy it that way — otherwise, it’s intolerable.
KNB: For me, the depiction of Africans is the most unsettling thing about this movie as well — aside from some of the really offensive jokes that would never fly in 2022. I think maybe it came from a good place; Eddie Murphy and team may have just been trying to course correct the lack of representation we saw onscreen of Africans at the time. My dad's Ghanaian, and he would do this too. "We're descended from kings and queens!" I have no actual royalty in my family, but he was trying to course correct this image that we saw growing up of starving children in World Vision commercials only, and that was the only perspective we had of the continent. So the thinking is, "No, there is wealth in countries in Africa, there is nobility, there is royalty." But when it swings too far the other way, it can be dangerous. And the fact that Coming To America was the only representation of Africa we saw in mainstream American cinema at the time, and for so long…it makes me cringe.
Is This Couple Still Together?
IK: I mean, if you’ve seen the sequel, spoiler: Akeem and Lisa are still together. But even if I hadn't seen the movie, I would say that Lisa probably grew into her role and stayed in Zamunda. She probably would have a huge influence on Akeem’s ruling as the king, because he seems a little flighty. He's like, "I'm going to follow my heart. I'm going to do whatever," and Lisa as queen would fire back with, "That makes no sense, love." She seems like a very grounding force.
JG: They're still together, and they're happy, because I think that their love for each other is strong. But I also agree that Lisa would’ve been a very good balance for Akeem. In what we’d seen her do before, I feel like she has a good head for business. Akeem and Semmi were just throwing money away this whole movie, and Lisa could have helped them come up with a budget and a long term financial plan. So yeah, she would be a great match for Akeem in the long run. I do think that Lisa would have to give up some independence, but she could also find her own way around that.
KNB: I think they’d still be married but unhappily. There’s no getting out of a royal coupling. I will also go on record and say this is about Harry and Meghan: you can't just get out. Once you decide to marry into royalty, unless you want to deal with the vitriol and the tabloids and the craziness, you're stuck. I haven't seen Coming to America 2, but I would say even if Akeem and Lisa weren't happy in their marriage, that they would just have to stick it out because of their obligations. Zamunda seems like a really patriarchal society, so Lisa is definitely going to have to give up some of her freedom, and that's going to make her miserable.
IK: You have a point because even looking at Meghan and Harry’s situation unfold over the last couple of years, things are so different. At first, we were so excited about the relationship, but over time, we stopped feeling good about their real-life fairytale because what happened to one of us actually turned out to be a nightmare. No matter what, any time we even think about a Black woman being caught up in royal life, it gives us anxiety. I hate that our fairytale of being a princess is just gone now.
KNB: Well, this is why we read Jasmine Guillory. You write Black women who get loved on and get their happily-ever-after.
JG: Thank you! By The Book comes out on 3rd May, and it's a re-imagining of Beauty and the Beast as a contemporary story with a Black woman, Isabelle, at the centre. I hope you'll like it!