While making rounds to movie theatres of sold-out showings Saturday, I thought, “I wonder what Eddie Murphy thinks about ‘Black Panther?’”
African prints and dashikis seemed to be the unofficial “Black Panther” viewing uniform. But some people came people dressed-up paying tribute to Zamunda on their way to Wakanda. It drove home the significance of his film “Coming to America” as it relates to the Marvel Studios and Disney release. “Black Panther” broke box office records with more than $426M globally in four days and became a bona fide cultural phenomenon in the process.
Ironically, the Ryan Coogler directed film based on the Marvel Comics character starring Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker and St. Louis’ own Sterling K. Brown was released just a few months shy of the 30th anniversary of Murphy’s blockbuster romantic comedy that also explicitly illustrated the wealth and prosperity of a fictional African nation (Zamunda).
In 1988, “Coming to America” allowed black people to imagine the continent beyond the impoverished, famine-filled images from USA for Africa and those god-awful Feed The Children commercials that shaped the narrative and our assumptions about our roots at the time. The premise of an African prince with immeasurable wealth that comes to Queens, New York to find a wife may sound silly – however, the story and the characters were quite revolutionary.
At the time, Murphy was the undisputed king of comedy, and one of Hollywood’s most bankable film stars, thanks in part to his record-setting “Raw” comedy tour and film and the “Beverly Hills Cop” franchise. And at the height of his fame, Murphy bet on black – and the gamble paid off. He had a white director in John Landis, but the all-black all-star cast included James Earl Jones, Arsenio Hall, John Amos, Shari Headley, the late Madge Sinclair and Murphy.
The film became an instant black comedy classic and a blockbuster by raking in more than $125M domestically. He followed up “Coming to America” with 1989’s “Harlem Nights.” Murphy himself directed the film that paired him with comedy legends Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx and actress Della Reese. The film about a successful black nightclub during the prohibition era clocked just under $100M.
Murphy’s third consecutive all-black film was “Boomerang,” directed by East St. Louis’ own Reginald Hudlin. Murphy led the cast that included Robin Givens, David Alan Grier, Grace Jones, Martin Lawrence and Halle Berry. The film revolved around the love life of a successful advertising executive.
While he was on the promotional trail for “Boomerang” back in 1992, Murphy told then “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno, “the most political thing about ‘Boomerang’ is that it has an all-black cast and it has nothing to do with being black.”
Leno then read an excerpt from a Los Angeles Times review that panned the film for its unapologetic blackness. “The most intriguing thing about Boomerang is not it’s story but it’s racial composition,” Leno read. “This film takes place in a reverse world where white people are invisible.”
Murphy was eager to respond.
“This cat in the L.A. Times is tripping because there were no white leads in ‘Boomerang,’” Murphy said. “But you take a movie like “Boyz In The Hood,” no one tripped about that, because it dealt with a violent theme. But because it [Boomerang] dealt with business, it was like ‘where are the white people? Who’s running that office?’”
Leno pointed out that there were no black people in “Batman,” and no one seemed to have a problem with the racial composition of that cast. “And you had penguins and a catwoman,” Murphy said. “They could have had a brother with a limp or something.”
Leno said that perhaps that critic – and mainstream movie audiences in general – aren’t used to seeing black-led films. “Well, you better get used to it – because I ain’t going no place,” Murphy said with a matter of fact assurance. It’s my opinion, Murphy’s “I” was black Hollywood as a collective, and his statement was a proclamation that black-led films would be a force to be reckoned with.
I’d go so far to say that Murphy helped lay the foundation for the arrival of “Black Panther” on the big screen with “Coming to America.”
And these days, a powerful African nation with a supremely powerful king and an abundance of natural and intellectual resources is no laughing matter.