If you thought Wakanda was stylish, wait until you see Zamunda.
Costume legend Ruth E. Carter has outdone herself with “Coming 2 America,” the sequel to the 1988 comedy classic “Coming to America” that starred Eddie Murphy as Prince Akeem Joffer, crown prince of the fictional African nation Zamunda, who travels to America to find a bride.
Thirty-three years later, Akeem is back, this time in search of his long-lost son, in a feel-good film with an Afro-futuristic fairy-tale aesthetic. The movie streams March 5 on Amazon.
“If ‘Black Panther”s Wakanda is Africa’s warring leader in technology, Zamunda is the fashion capitol, lighter and more artistic,” said Carter, who today becomes only the second costume designer in history, after Edith Head, to get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and the first costume designer of color. “I’m proud to be recognized for empowering the female form with Afro-future, and for inspiring others to express their ancestral royalty,” she said of the honor, after 40-plus years in her field.
Tribal streetwear, barely there beaded bathing suits, a kente cloth kilt, cowrie shells on lapels and a wedding gown of Ankara fabric with a train so long it required two dollies to support it are just a few of the visual delights in “Coming 2 America,’ drawn from Carter’s incredible imagination and 39 fashion designers from around the globe she curated to collaborate.
Directed by Craig Brewer, “Coming 2 America” spans from the lavish royal court of Zamunda, where Akeem lives with his queen (Shari Headley) and three daughters, Imani, Meeka and Omma (Vanessa Bell Calloway, KiKi Layne, and Murphy’s real-life daughter, Bella Murphy), to gritty Queens, N.Y., where he meets his son, Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler), conceived during a one-night stand with Mary (Leslie Jones) all those years ago. Much hilarity ensues.
Carter wasn’t involved in the first film, directed by John Landis with costumes by his future wife, Deborah Nadoolman Landis, now an important scholar of Hollywood costume design. (James Earl Jones wearing a full lion’s head stole is one of the priceless looks from the original.)
Despite the fact that Nadoolman Landis said at the time she felt scrutiny for working on the film as a white costume designer, Hollywood is in a different place now in its reckoning with racial stereotypes and appropriation.
“Hats off to Deborah for coming up with the original plan,” said Carter, who is friends with Nadoolman Landis. “But things have evolved. Looking back, they kind of had an imperialistic idea of royalty. It was a blend of English and African royalty. In the original film, when a carriage pulls off and the guys driving it have white wigs and cutaway coats, you say, ‘What part of Africa does that come from?’…Now that we are here in 2021, we’ve been on the internet connecting with cultures, and seen ‘Black Panther,’ and there’s a whole Afro-future aesthetic. I was looking to show some of the real Africa,” the designer said of casting a wider net.
Among those who contributed are L.A.-based Sergio Hudson who dressed former First Lady Michelle Obama for the inauguration of President Joe Biden; celeb-favorite LaVie by CK, and jewelry designer Melody Ehsani; Philadelphia-based tailoring brand Ikiré Jones; Moscow-to-Brooklyn conceptual streetwear brand Jahnkoy; trendy swimwear designer Andrea Iyamah; South African knitwear specialist MaXhosa and Palesa Mokubung, who recently collaborated with H&M; Lagos-based House of Diola; Ivory Coast’s Loza Maléombho, and New Delhi’s JJ Valaya.
“She knows the movie is so close to our culture and she let us be part of it,” said Hudson, who made several looks for Leslie Jones. “It’s humbling.”
On screen, Carter merged traditional and contemporary touches to exciting effect (even though, sadly, the costume photos Amazon captured from the film don’t do it justice).
“I steered away from Ankara fabric in ‘Black Panther’ because we weren’t using anything appropriated, and wax cloth came from the Dutch, but this time I could use as much as I wanted,” she said of the film’s treasure trove of African and African-inspired fabrics, mentioning an original royal mask pattern that recurs on Akeem’s velvet blazer, his tunics and his red throne room look.
“We were going to be in the home and palace of Akeem, and I had a whole staff to get together, so I went to [MaXhosa designer] Laduma Ngxokolo in South Africa. I asked him to do caps, vests and long shirts,” she said.
To dress the trio of powerful princesses, she looked East. “The first movie had a lot of Indian influence and East Africa and India traded for centuries, so when you look at the lace and embellished African fabric, you see a lot of East Indian influences,” she said. “I liked that permission, and had some beautiful things made in India for the queen and princesses.”
New York designer Mimi Plange designed an incredible orange leather dress with asymmetrical cuts and a sleek athleticism worn by Layne early in the film. To bring a modern athletic touch to a lion taming scene, depicting Layne as a warrior in a Puma logo dress with graphic cutouts, and Fowler in training in draped knit joggers, Carter brought in designer Maria Kazakova of Jahnkoy. “She has this tribal aesthetic I fell in love with, taking a football jersey and turning it into the drape for a waist, and putting fringe on it, or beading tennis shoes. I hate when people say you stole something, so I asked if we could collaborate,” Carter said.
Another incredible look is a couture-like bustier cage dress worn by Teyana Taylor during a party scene. “That was Laurel DeWitt; she’s a local L.A. designer famous for her metal work. I went to her studio, and it’s like covered in gold metal crowns and chain skirts.”
The wedding gown in the finale was the work of LaVie designer Claude Kameni, who used horsehair in the lining to create dramatic volume. (Carter found out about her after Tracee Ellis Ross wore the brand to the 2018 American Music Awards.)
“We didn’t realize that much Ankara fabric would be heavy — pulling it down the street was like pulling a barrel of fabric,” Carter said.
Shot between L.A. and Atlanta, the job had challenges. “I had someone assigned to Eddie Murphy, someone assigned to Arsenio Hall, someone assigned to flashbacks…one of the jackets Arsenio wore in 1988, that fabric no longer existed. We had to print it and do paint work on top of it,” Carter said. “In Atlanta, we had a whole workroom, and I sent a lot of designs ahead of time for them to get started on.”
Costume designers are work-for-hire studio employees who don’t own their work, but Carter is trying to arrange to keep some of the costumes from “Coming 2 America.” “I worked it into my contract to keep two, but I’m trying to get five for my traveling exhibition currently at Savannah College of Art and Design in Atlanta,” she said of her traveling show, “Afrofuturism in Design.”
Then, come July, she’s back to the Afro-future again, shooting “Black Panther 2.”