Technically, Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall are the stars of Coming 2 America, a 2021 sequel to the 1988 comedy Coming to America. Murphy and Hall reprise their roles as Prince Akeem and his best friend Semmi, hailing from the fictional African nation of Zamunda.
But the breakout stars are undeniably Ruth E. Carter’s gorgeous costumes, which turn each scene into a visual smorgasbord. Or, as Hall puts it in an exclusive video for OprahMag.com, “[Carter] creates rooms that look like a bouquet of flowers.” The triumphant final scene shows off the splendor of Carter’s creations: The people of Zamunda gather in Prince Akeem’s palace, each wearing a costume more gorgeous than the last.
Over the course of her legendary three decades in Hollywood, Carter has worked on Malcom X, Do the Right Thing, and Selma, to name a few, and alongside filmmakers like Spike Lee, Steven Spielberg, John Singleton, Ava DuVernay, and Lee Daniels. She gained global recognition for her work on the 2018 Marvel movie, Black Panther, also set in a fictional African nation—Wakanda, not Zamunda. In February 2021, she became the second costume designer to get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Carter was tapped for Coming 2 America soon after her Oscar win for Black Panther. “My reaction was jubilant but at the same time it was fear. I had just done Black Panther. I wondered how I could separate the two ideas,” Carter said in the featurette. “And I knew there was going to be a whole lot of costumes.”
The costumes tell the story of two very different nations (and royal families). Wakanda’s silver and leather costumes exemplify the Vibranium-rich, scientifically advanced nation. For Coming 2 America, Carter says she prioritized “authenticity,” working with more than three dozen designers to create original costumes that incorporated traditional fabrics and patterns. Since this was a modern take on the 1988 movie, Carter was also inspired by contemporary African designers.
Carter’s attention to character and detail are on display in Prince Akeem’s embroidered coat. “The coat itself is the story of the royal family of Zamunda. I created an embroidery pattern that was the family crest,” she said. On Prince Akeem’s shoulder is a 3D-printed lion, a cruelty-free homage to the lion on the his father, the king’s, coat.
Another subtle easter egg? Meeka, Akeem’s oldest daughter (played by KiKi Layne), wears a costume adorned with the flag of Zamunda when she’s practicing her fighting skills against her dad.
Carter was especially delighted by the chance to outfit Murphy’s many other characters in Coming 2 America. Known for shape-shifting throughout his films, Murphy also plays the singer Randy Watson and—to Oprah’s surprise—a few of the opinionated guys in the barbershop scenes. “She couldn’t believe it,” Murphy said on Jimmy Kimmel Live when recalling the story. “And she’s seen the original Coming to America and [its sequel] and all this time didn’t know.”
Carter tells OprahMag.com her proudest moment on the project came not in creating Prince Akeem’s ornate garb, but in switching between looks.
“When you create a costume for him it’s a great feeling because he has played so many characters in the past. So my proudest moment came after dressing him up in all his glorious King Akeem looks and then removing all the “royal” and dressing him as Sal in the barbershop and then Randy Watson,” Carter says.
Carter was especially keen on Randy Watson’s baby blue Elvis-inspired look, unveiled in the movie’s final scene. “Sexual Chocolate had me cracking up. When I presented the sketch to Eddie on set he took it around showing it to others laughing. I knew then it was going to work,” she says. “30 years later, Eddie Murphy is still making us laugh.”
For Carter, this moment was also a culmination of everything she’s wanted in her career. “It dawned on me that I was experiencing the quintessential costume designer’s dream: Creating characters through costume,” she says.
See all of Coming 2 America’s costumes, along with Black Panther‘s, at Carter’s exhibition on Afrofuturism in costume design, currently on display at SCAD in Atlanta through September.