Filmmaker Craig Brewer broke into Hollywood with his groundbreaking 2005 Oscar-nominated film Hustle & Flow. The writer and director would go on to make Black Snake Moan and a remake of Footloose before collaborating with legendary actor, and comedian Eddie Murphy on 2019’s critically-acclaimed Dolemite Is My Name. Now the two have reteamed for a sequel to Murphy’s beloved 1988 comedy Coming to America, this time aptly entitled, Coming 2 America, which is currently streaming on Amazon Prime. The film also reteams Murphy with his co-star and longtime friend, legendary comedian, and talk show host Arsenio Hall, as well as returning cast members Shari Headley, John Amos, and James Earl Jones, as well as new additions to the cast, including Leslie Jones, Jermaine Fowler, Kiki Layne, Nomzamo Mbatha, Bella Murphy, Tracy Morgan, and Wesley Snipes.
Coming 2 America picks up thirty years after the first film, with Prince Akeem (Murphy) and Lisa (Headley) now happily married with three daughters in Zamunda. However, the country is on the verge of war with General Izzi (Snipes), and Akeem is about to become King with no male heirs to inherit the throne. Semmi (Hall) soon reveals that Akeem did have a son from a one-night stand that happened in Queens right before he met Lisa, which took place off-screen during the events of the first movie. Now, Akeem and Semmi must travel back to America and find his son, Lavelle (Fowler), and return to Zamunda with him to save the kingdom. Along the way, they also meet Lavelle’s mother, Mary Junson (Jones), and her brother Reem (Morgan), as well as many familiar faces from the first film, such as Queens barbers Mr. Clarence (Murphy) and Morris (Hall), their friend Saul (Murphy), Reverend Brown (Hall) and the lead singer of Sexual Chocolate, Randy Watson (Murphy).
We Live Entertainment recently had the pleasure of speaking exclusively with director Craig Brewer about his work on Coming 2 America and the first film’s legacy. Brewer also discussed working with Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall, his love for Coming to America director John Landis, the franchise’s connection to Trading Places, the comedic genius that is Wesley Snipes, how Dave Chappelle was almost in the movie, and why James Earl Jones made Brewer cry on set.
We Live Entertainment: To begin with, could you talk about first working with Eddie Murphy on Dolemite Is My Name and how that collaboration led to you directing him in Coming 2 America?
Craig Brewer: Well, I think it is kind of simple in a way now looking back on it. Eddie told me he had one of the best experiences of his career working on Dolemite Is My Name. He got to make the movie that he had always dreamed about. We had a couple of early screenings of Dolemite where he was very encouraged and felt very good about the movie. I’m sure he put a couple of equations together and thought, well, I had a good time making it, and people seem to enjoy it, and maybe we can do it again on Coming 2 America. But I think he also knows that I’m not only a fan of his, but I’m a big fan of John Landis. On Dolemite Is My Name, I would ask him many questions about filming Coming to America and about filming Trading Places, and then we would talk about other Landis movies that we love and what a run it was that he had in the 80s and early 90s. So, I think he kind of knew that I would be into exploring that world.
WLE: I’m glad you mentioned John Landis because he is such a brilliant and successful director that oddly seems to be underrated by history. Can you talk about how his body of work has inspired you as a filmmaker?
Brewer: I couldn’t agree with you more. I had a two-and-a-half-hour conversation with him last week. I told him, I really have to be honest that it was your films that are the reason I’m here as a filmmaker. I was not only a huge fan of The Blues Brothers, but my dad would play it on our Beta machine on repeat. One of the first VHS’ I owned was The Making of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. That was where I got my big introduction to who Rick Baker was and also who John Landis was. I remember my dad and I watching that making-of special, and there is a moment where Michael Jackson is talking about all the John Landis movies he saw, and he was like, “I watched An American Werewolf in London, and I watched Kentucky Fried Movie.” My dad and I went out and rented American Werewolf in London and then The Kentucky Fried Movie. I don’t know if you have ever seen Kentucky Fried Movie, but it definitely rocked our world that night. We had a great night as father and son, but we had to lock my little sister out of the room at certain points.
WLE: As you know, Coming to America was the second film Eddie Murphy and director John Landis made together, and of course, the first was Trading Places. Actors Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy reprised their roles from Trading Places in Coming to America as Mortimer and Randolph Duke, respectively, and there is also a reference to the Dukes in Coming 2 America. Can you talk about the decision to include the Dukes in the sequel, and do you think that it is now official that Trading Places and the Coming to America franchise exist in the same shared cinematic universe?
Brewer: Yes, I totally believe that. I am so glad you brought that up because that wasn’t always in the script. What it was is that Akeem’s son was going into a job interview with a guy that was a little too arch-racist. I think he was written to even be a Southerner. It’s not that I’m from the South or believe that there is no racism in the South, but I thought it was kind of a tired trope. Really a lot of the racism that we have to worry about is in the corporate sector, it’s white-collar racism. Then it just hit me one morning, and I called up the producer and Eddie and said, wait a minute, this makes sense. The Duke brothers lost all their money in Trading Places. Then in Coming to America, Prince Akeem gave them a bunch of money, and now they’re back. The first thing that the Duke brothers start investing in was digital communications. They run this digital communication firm called D&D Digital, and one of their grandsons, played by Colin Jost, is now working for D&D Digital. Now, the bastard son of Akeem, whose father ultimately built this, is being racially discriminated against by the Dukes’ grandson.
So, I’ve been telling everyone when they ask if there is going to be a Coming to America 3, I say, I don’t know if I would call it a Coming to America 3, but I would love to see a movie where both the characters of Trading Places and Coming to America can exist like a global heist movie that would involve this new Zamundan family. Then bring up questions such as the character Eddie played in Trading Places, why does he look like Prince Akeem? Did something happen with King Jaffe Joffer? It just brings up this great possibility of an Eddie Murphy/John Landis universe.
WLE: Can you talk about being on set with Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall, directing them in their classic characters, and why you think they make such a hilarious comedic duo on screen?
Brewer: Well, first and foremost, they are friends. I’ve been over to Eddie’s house even a couple times before making Coming 2 America, and Arsenio was hanging out. He’s a member of the family. To get those two together, telling stories and cracking each other up is truly a gift that I will never forget. I remember when we finally got the script where we were going, there was almost a feeling of “Eddie is ready to make the movie.” Arsenio came over, and they just kept telling stories after stories of filming the first movie. To see Eddie just genuinely crack up from something that Arsenio says and vice versa, it’s special to see. They’re just two guys from back in the day that still hangout and crack each other up.
On the set, they were still having fun, but they got to work. They knew that they were not going to be able to coast through this one. It meant too much to too many people, including themselves. I don’t know about you, but I miss Arsenio. I’ve been watching him in the movie, and I think he is so entertaining in it. I would love to see him back in the world, he meant so much to me with his show, and seeing him with Eddie just warms my heart.
WLE: Something else that happened due to the release of Dolemite Is My Name is that the world rediscovered that in addition to a great actor and action star, Wesley Snipes is also a comedic genius. Can you talk about casting him in Coming 2 America?
Brewer: Well, once he showed up for his first day of his shooting for Dolemite, none of us knew what he was going to do. To see this character come out of Wesley that he made was incredible. Eddie, Mike Epps, and Craig Robinson were just watching him for the first time, and you could see them vibrating because they were trying not to laugh. I knew that we had tapped the creative keg of Wesley Snipes. I sometimes need to remind people that Wesley was cracking us up back in the day. He was also doing incredible dramatic stuff. But then he is also Blade. I mean, what can this guy not do?
So, there was a lot of talk as to who would play General Izzi. There was even talk that Eddie should be General Izzi opposite himself. But I had my General Izzi from the moment that I knew I was directing the movie. If you would have told me like ten years ago that Eddie Murphy and Wesley Snipes were comedy gold together, I wouldn’t have believed you. But now, I just think they are perfect for each other. They tend to occupy their own turf. You accept them both as equals, in a way. So, I told Wesley, I’m just going to stand over here by the monitor and watch you work your magic.
WLE: As you just mentioned, Eddie did say at the recent press conference that he had considered playing General Izzi. But he also dropped the news that he had planned to play Baba the witch doctor, a role ultimately portrayed by Arsenio Hall, but that Dave Chappelle had considered playing the role at one point too. Can you talk about that, and how close did you really get to casting Chappelle in the film?
Brewer: Well, there was a desire to have Dave Chappelle play that. I think there was a version of the script where it was written with a parenthesis, “like Dave Chappelle.” But the more we started getting into it, the more we moved away from it. I remember the day that we were coming up with different people that could play it, and Eddie was like, “I think Arsenio needs to play it.” Arsenio was game to do it, and it made sense to us. So, we went in that direction, and I’m glad we did.
WLE: Eddie also mentioned at the press conference that he did not shoot his scenes with James Earl Jones and that Jones shot his scenes separately from the rest of the cast. Were you on set with James Earl Jones when he was shooting his scenes, or did you have to direct him remotely?
Brewer: That was like one of the greatest honors of my career. There is kind of an emotional story attached to it. James Earl was in New York, and he couldn’t really travel to Atlanta. We couldn’t even really get the cast up to New York to be off-camera, so I shot the whole scene with a double in his place. Then I knew exactly what I needed to do. So, when we went to New York to film with James Earl, I had to act with him all day. So, it is me off camera every time he’s acting. I spent my day acting with James Earl Jones!
There is a moment (in the movie) where his character is passing away, and I had to be the guy that he was talking to as he passed away. My father passed away at an unexpectedly early age at forty-nine, and my assistant director’s father also recently passed. I was doing this scene with James Earl Jones, and I’m having this moment with him, and he passes, and I’m supposed to call cut even though I was acting off camera with him. But I couldn’t. I don’t know if it was just all the Star Wars movies or just everything, but I had this moment that I didn’t get to have with my dad. It wasn’t like this incredibly dramatic moment, but suddenly I couldn’t speak. I turned to my assistant director to try and get him to yell cut because I was choked up, and he too had tears running down his face. So, the whole crew was having this moment with James Earl Jones passing. Every time I see that moment in the movie, I feel really special because I got to have kind of a moment of closure with my own father while Eddie’s character, Akeem, is having this moment with King Jaffe Joffer. And considering that my father took me to see Coming to America, we were both there when the first one came out, it was a nice full circle with it all.
WLE: Finally, as a filmmaker, can you talk about what it means to you personally to have the opportunity to direct Coming 2 America and the legacy of the franchise?
Brewer: It’s a good thing to have fear in your life when you make something. Ultimately, you’re working for the right audience. You are working for the audience that loved the original. But I also had to keep in mind that if we had two hours of just unending homages and callbacks, we wouldn’t really have something that can move forward. For me, it kind of just brought up in me all of my love of that, as we talked about, John Landis-type cinema. But in the same vein, I knew that I could be a good guardian of what people loved in the first one. Then also be the kind of guy saying, I know that we could do a little bit of a nod, but I don’t know if that’s really going to add to the story that we are telling right now. Because so much of what I love about what the sequel deals with is that we are thirty-years later, and Akeem is dealing with themes that I’m dealing with, and the audience is dealing with.
Ultimately, we got to listen to our children, and even though we think we know what’s best for them, and we think we know the kind of world they need to live in, we really need to arm them and be in service to them for the world that they’re building. That’s a theme that I think resonates with the fans of the original movie. So, I knew that we would have the funny, I knew that we would have the production value, and I really wanted to make sure we had the soul. Because Coming to America is more than just a comedy. People love it! It is dear to them, and it is precious to them. So, I wanted to make sure that it had that same soul.