Often I am very late in coming to know about people or events popular around me. So it is with Eddie Murphy, though I am happy to learn that we share April 3rd as our birthday. Of course, I know his name as a comedian of major significance, but comedy is not my go-to genre for movies or TV shows, so it is only now that I’ve actually seen him act. But a friend recently recommended that I get his movie, “Coming to America” from Netflix; last evening I watched it with Patches, my faithful companion kitty, and was quite taken by his versatility and by his gift for establishing a character far different from himself and then letting that character expand to become a particular grand of “Everyman.” Having been impressed by him and enjoyed the movie, I have spent some time learning about Murphy and his career. I’m staggered by the very long list of awards for which he’s been nominated, and the list of awards he has won is impressive. In 2015, for instance, he was awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, surely a prime accolade for any comedian to garner. I’ve also learned that he has played multiple roles in more movies that this one I’ve just watched, most notably in the Nutty Professor series where he has been not only the title character but that person’s father, brother, mother, and grandmother. He says he likes doing this as a way to pay tribute to the remarkable Peter Sellers, an idol.
“Coming to America” (1988) is a satire about all sorts of things: monarchs of African countries who themselves are inflated satires of colonial powers, the ever-popular American film “Singing in the Rain,” the fairy tale of rich boy’s looking for a girl who will love him just for himself by pretending to be poor, black barber shop wisdom, Macdonald’s fast food chain, and I could keep going. Murphy’s standing among the world of stand-up comedians and more serious actors means he is joined by two major figures from those worlds–Arsenio Hall who plays his royal attendant and no less than James Earl Jones who plays the inflated buffoonish king of the immensely rich African country. Because I was ignorant about this film, I had no idea that Murphy and Hall were several people until I watched as the cast of characters rolled by on my flat screen. Learning this prompts me to watch the film again so as to give them my informed attention to their special abilities. I don’t need a second viewing, however, to register how versatile Jones is and how sure of himself as a large man since in “Coming to America” his costumes exaggerate his stature so that he seems like a modern-day Colossus as he struts around the scenes, making all of them appear too cramped to contain his energy or his even his person.
Though, as many fine satires I know, this movie is utterly predictable in terms of plot, plot is not the point. The plot is just a container or platform–the real point is comic talent, so when Murphy’s one of the slap-stick quartet in the black barbershop, what I am invited to do is understand that the original representations of adult black men acting like clowns as they argue sports greats and fold in half as they literally slap their knees were early ways for blacks to fulfill white audiences’ stereotypes. The real satire, however, is about those white racist stereotypes, blatantly evident to anyone watching who has even a rudimentary understanding of the genre. Similarly, by having the overstated rich black king be bested not only by his son but his wife who is supposed to hang on his every syllable, Murphy’s movie mocks gender role expectations even as it pokes holes in the cultural balloon about colonized rulers who adopt the very worst aspects of their original masters.
Along the way, Murphy’s character engages in moments where the audience is asked to adjust its own stereotypes. One of these comes late in the movie when the Prince is trying to hang on to his ruse as a poor floor mopper at the fast food joint that itself mocks the MacDonalds phenomenon. Walking late at night on a New York street with the girl of his dreams who will become his “queen,” he needs to ditch an envelope full of big bills. They pass a homeless old man into whose filthy hands Murphy stuffs the envelope. He and his date move on while the camera shows us the amazed expression on the homeless man’s face who then prods another homeless old man to whom he shows the magic envelope. In a flash, we comprehend that they are a gay couple who once fared much better (one says to the other “We’re BACK!”) and then, a little later when Murphy and his girl friend are sitting in a restaurant window, the old gay men appear in that window to thank him for their ticket out of the streets and back into whatever more cushiony life they once inhabited.
So I’m very glad I followed my friend’s urgings and got the DVD disc. It’s just one more example of what can happen for me when I am willing to step out of my comfortable parameters and let myself take in a fresh world. I find wonderful examples of talent and wisdom about us human beings that I’d miss if I just stayed on familiar ground. And I sometimes discover delightful connections with unlikely sources as I have by learning that Eddie Murphy and I were both born on the 3rd of April. Next year, I’ll think of him on my birthday after I remember that my old lesbian-feminist friend Connie and no less a person than Jane Goodall also were born on that day of that month.