Zamunda might be King Akeem’s kingdom, but the “Coming to America” wouldn’t be complete without its Queens.
While Shari Headley’s Lisa McDowell captured fans’ attention and Akeem’s (Eddie Murphy) heart with her confidence and headstrong attitude in the 1988 original, “Coming 2 America” boasts a new crop of ladies who are ready to speak their minds and take their rightful place at the center of Zamunda’s legend, including KiKi Layne, Bella Murphy (yes, star Eddie Murphy’s daughter), Akiley Love and Nomzamo Mbatha.
“I’ve been watching this movie since I was a little kid. I wasn’t even born when the first one came out,” Layne, who plays Akeem and Lisa’s eldest daughter Meeka, tells Variety. “They never stop being funny, but for a lot of people that [movie] was the first time that people in African culture were represented [onscreen] as kings and queens, and rich, and had a wealth of resources and knowledge. To be a part of continuing that legacy is amazing.”
Meeka is at the center of “Coming 2 America’s” story, which follows the princess, who after training to her entire life to succeed her father as leader of Zamunda, learns that not only do the laws of land forbid a woman to rule, but her recently-discovered half-brother Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler) is going to take the throne instead instead.
Layne says it was that storyline that convinced her to take the role, explaining that she was interested in playing “a character who is fighting for what is her rightful place and being denied it simply because she’s a woman, I think that’s something that a lot of women can relate to.”
“When you know that you are the most qualified for a position, and yet, simply because you’re a woman it’s not given to you or there’s all these assumptions about your capabilities and the strength that we carry,” she continues. “Often, these stereotypes cause us to miss out on things that rightfully should be ours.”
Those themes rooted in the voice and empowerment of women also permeate the love story between breakout star Nomzamo Mbatha’s character Mirembe and Lavelle. Their fairy tale romance is not only similar to Lisa and Akeem’s story in the original film, because they both feature a royal man in love with a commoner, but they also celebrate bold, progressive and empowered women as desirable partners.
“My character Mirembe may be a traditional Zamundan woman, but she’s very unconventional. She speaks her mind, she goes against the grain by being a barber and running her own little barbershop. There’s a very grounding force about her that unconsciously gives other women the permission to also be and stand rooted in who they are.”
“One of my favorite things to watch on screen is beautiful, Black love,” she adds. “I’m so honored I was able to tell this Black fairytale. My character went through a Black Cinderella kind of journey, from servant to a Queen-In-Waiting.”
Layne’s onscreen sisters Murphy (who plays the middle daughter Omma) and twelve-year-old Akiley Love (the youngest, Tinashe) were also moved by the film’s themes. On screen, the trio are martial arts-trained warriors, and, like Mirembe, not simply princesses awaiting rescue from their prince.
“I know lots of women can relate to the feelings that come with being silenced, especially Black women,” Murphy says of the film’s portrayal of the young women. “It’s important to have films like these because our stories need to be heard.”
“Although the system attempts to hold Omma back, she never lets those ideas define her,” she adds. “As we watch her navigate throughout her world, we see her consistently breaking those gender rules by simply just being herself.”
Through playing a character like Omma, who she describes as “intelligent, serious, studios, and a bad ass but who lives in a world where her life is heavily affected by misogynistic ideas,” Murphy hopes that audiences will feel like she did the first time she watched her dad’s classic film at 10 or 11 years old.
“Up until that moment I had never seen Black royalty on TV,” she says. “And, on top of that, I was watching my dad do all of this right before my eyes. So, by the end of the movie I just felt very proud, empowered and inspired.”
“Coming to America” marked Garcelle Beauvais’ first time on a real film set. Alongside Headley and Vanessa Bell Calloway, Beauvais returned for the sequel, as her flower bearer Rose got a promotion from the first film, now serving as the leader of the pack.
“This film was my launch pad into Hollywood,” Beauvais recalls. “The fact that I’m even able to say that is mind-blowing to me because it such a cinematic treasure. Being present on set allowed me to get a glimpse of what was possible for Black actors in Hollywood and I’ve never looked back.”
For her, the “Coming to America” series is “about celebrating our pride of birthright and our place in the world. A beautiful feel-good movie with some deeper meanings. It’s about strength, power and ownership. Ownership of heritage, commerce and life choices.”
“It resonates because we are all trying to stake our own claim in the world and define our unique place in it,” Beauvais explains. “The inner conflict we all go through to find our way to self-satisfaction is the story of human beings, balancing expectations against need — who can’t relate to that struggle?”
“Coming 2 America” is now available on Amazon Prime Video.
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