Lately I’ve been wondering how much of my fascination with Senator Barack Obama has been shaped by Eddie Murphy’s 1988 comedy, Coming to America.
Make no mistake, my reasons for supporting the Illinois senator’s candidacy for president are substantive. Education and health care reform are two of the issues that matter most to me. I appreciate the thoughtfulness and intellect that he brings to solving these problems, not to mention his prescient take on foreign relations. Even the way he runs his campaign is impressive.
I won’t pretend, however, that I don’t also have an emotional investment in an Obama administration. I’m hardly a generation removed from Jim Crow segregation. (And I live in a state that still displays the Confederate flag outside the Capitol.)
All of this is part of the network of experiences that constitute my worldview, my “cultural compass” – to borrow a term I heard Michele Norris use recently in a terrific NPR series on race and politics.
But when it comes to visions of Africa, and of black love, leadership, and royal blood in America, my cultural compass often points to, of all places, the imaginary Kingdom of Zamunda. Prince Akeem’s hilarious journey to New York takes a romanticized narrative generally reserved for “whites only” and recreates it as a modern black fairytale, rich with pop cultural parody and historical allusions, bawdy satire, and an all-star cast.
Plus it’s just so damn funny. I know I’m not the only one who knows every word to the Soul Glo jingle… and yes, I have been known to stomp my feet and flail my arms wide in a perfect imitation of Randy Watson and his band…SEXUAL CHOCOLATE!)
But Murphy’s film is also about pride, redemption, and moral integrity and, in this respect, Akeem’s story folds easily into the widely-circulated narrative of Obama’s life and ambitions.
Others might make a similar case for “The Cosby Show.” Recently “The Daily Show” aired a hilarious parody of Obama’s biography that connects his birth to The Lion King. But I submit that Coming to America actually does a better job of capturing both the hopes and anxieties inherent in black America’s admiration for Barack Obama. Here are three reasons why:
I. “Whatever You Like”: Obama’s Royal Heritage
Remember that scene where Prince Akeem (Eddie Murphy) and his father King Jaffe Joffer (James Earl Jones) stroll through the gardens of Zamunda while a small elephant quietly wanders about?
Growing up in the 1980s, I knew that Zamunda’s lush anachronisms were both a parody and a homage to the ancient majesty of Africa. But knowing so little about the continent beyond its legacy of suffering, slavery, and colonization, Coming to America offered me and my sister a marvelous fantasy. The prince is pampered by King Jaffe’s glorious wealth and patriarchal traditions (not to mention royal bathers) and yet his desire is for a wife who he can respect. His quest courageously bridges space and time, allowing him and his personal assistant, Semmi (Arsenio Hall), to retrace the once sorrowful transatlantic journey for a greater purpose: the experience of true love.
Now, anyone who has heard Barack Obama’s story or read his brilliant autobiography knows that he is an American citizen, born in Hawaii in 1961, and that his father, a Kenyan, is no King Jaffe.
The elder Obama grew up herding goats and later, it was a college scholarship that brought him to America. It is also well known that Obama and his father had no real relationship, as his father left him and his white mother two years after he was born. Obama’s political opponents may consider his African paternity to be a pejorative sign of “foreignness,” while even well-intentioned black folks have wondered aloud if a biracial man is “black enough” to relate to their struggle. (For a great response to this argument, read what Ta-Nehisi Coates has to say.)
I am reminded, instead, of the way Coming to America presents Prince Akeem’s African lineage, pristine and unbroken. I see in Obama the same confidence of someone who can trace his family tree to the village in which its leaves first sprouted, rather than to the careless slash in a plantation owner’s journal.
I will be the first to admit that the cultural myths that shape my view of Obama’s past are as removed from reality as the gardens of Zamunda. But knowing this doesn’t make the fantasy any less potent.
II. South Side “Soul Glo”: Redeeming Black America
Coming to America is undoubtedly at its best when lampooning the idiosyncrasies of black America.
As Prince Akeem delights in playing the “common man” as a fast food restaurant janitor, his observations about black folks are hilarious and sobering. Cleo McDowell (John Amos) is the opportunistic black entrepreneur who makes trivial distinctions between his restaurant and its well-known rival. A sweaty Reverend Brown leads the down-home “Black Awareness Rally,” while Akeem’s love interest, Lisa McDowell (Shari Headley), is surrounded by an overly-promiscuous sister and a slimy boyfriend, Darryl (Eriq Le Salle).
Lisa’s progression from an American prince – Darryl is, after all, the heir to the Soul Glo hair products fortune – to an African prince is enabled by her increasing fascination with Akeem’s integrity. Everyone Akeem comes into contact is better for having known him. And even when his parents travel to New York to demand that he return to Zamunda, Akeem works to regain Lisa’s trust.
You probably know where I’m going with this. Lisa is Michelle Obama, right? Well, sure, but more importantly, Michelle’s upbringing and her Chicago community represent a key element of Barack’s experience. He writes in his autobiography of the struggles he encountered as a new and unfamiliar face in places that I suspect are not unlike the My-T-Sharp Barbershop in Coming to America. His initial observations as an outsider made him more attentive to the challenges of poverty, equal education, and labor rights.
It helps, too, that he fell for a woman as down-to-earth and intelligent as Michelle. She seems to me to be someone who can see through all the Jheri Curl juice, maintain her poise, and stay focused while the good Reverend offers to “sop her up with a biscuit.”
III. “Just Juices and Berries”: Our Cultural Rorschach Test
He is respectful to his elders, mops the floor with pride, and doesn’t think twice about dropping a billfold of hundreds into the church donation plate – Prince Akeem is a model of compassion and open-mindedness.
Many confuse the prince’s thoughtfulness for naivete, but this is a costly mistake. Just ask the grizzly McDowell’s stick-up man (Samuel L. Jackson!) who ends up flat on his back. Akeem is also refreshingly free from our society’s racial self-loathing. And he doesn’t need ultra-perm to keep his hair looking great.
There are moments in the film where Murphy seems to draw too heavily on the “noble savage” stereotype in his portrayal of Akeem as an man uncorrupted and unencumbered. Yet the film also demonstrates that the prince still has room, and a willingness, to grow.
Obama isn’t perfect either, though it’s clear that many of his supporters have set astonishingly high expectations for his campaign. Others have seriously underestimated him, dismissing his reluctance to smear his opponents as a sign of weakness. Yet the candidate remains level-headed and clear about his purpose. In fact, Obama is keenly aware of the extent to which his candidacy has become the cultural Rorschach test of our generation. Before a crowd of over 80,000 supporters gathered to hear his presidential nomination acceptance speech, Obama reminded us that “this election has never been about me. It’s been about you.”
So what does this analysis of Coming to America say about Obama?
Honestly? Nothing. But it suggests a great deal about the cultural compass that I bring with me into the voting both. One could argue that this kind of association, however positive, also places a greater responsibility on others of my generation to make sure that we educate ourselves about Obama’s campaign, even as we fantasize about the possibilities of his presidency.