Coming to America came out in June 1988, when Jermaine Fowler was one month old. It would be another eight years before he saw the Eddie Murphy-Arsenio Hall classic for the first time as an elementary schooler. "Every scene in the barbershop killed me," he recalls. "Every scene."
"My favorite scene is Clarence talking about how Martin Luther King punched him in the chest, because he thought he was somebody else," Fowler says, laughing now even thinking about it. "It's so many layers to that. Why was he there? And why did he punch you? Who did he think you were?"
In high school, he recorded the barbershop scene on his "old little Nokia joint" and set it as his answering machine. It was around that time that a friend lent him a VHS copy of Eddie Murphy Raw, thus inspiring Fowler to pursue his own career in standup. As he hustled his way onto the comedy scene, he kept coming back to Coming to America and found a new appreciation for it.
"The acting, the story, the emotional moments that keep you glued to the screen." He realized, "The drama is just as important as the comedy, to be real. It's a movie that just sticks with you forever. Even it's on TV, no matter if it comes on TNT or USA, every Sunday, it doesn't get old, it never, ever gets old."
When he booked Coming 2 America, Fowler was only a few years older than Murphy had been while filming the original. The follow-up revolves around Prince Akeem (Murphy) learning that he fathered a son in New York City all those years ago. Fowler stars as Lavelle Junson, the next heir to the throne of Zamunda.
The excitement he felt about being part of the sequel came mixed with the fear that a sequel might ruin something he treasured so much. "I come from a generation where people remake and rehash and sequalize everything," he tells ET by Zoom from his place in L.A. "And a lot of sequels just suck. And the reason why they suck is because the folks who made the original a classic, they're not there." Fortunately, Murphy had his fingerprint on every part of Coming 2 America. "That's how you do a sequel. No matter how long it's been, you make sure the people that made it special in the beginning are there."
Murphy and Hall, not to say the least of Shari Headley, John Amos, James Earl Jones and Paul Bates, may all be back but make no mistake: Fowler isn't just in Coming 2 America. He's the star of Coming 2 America. "Yeah," he says, bashfully looking down before breaking into a huge grin and keeling over with laughter. "It's f**king nuts! It's f**king crazy! I've been trying not to curse all week during the press stuff, but I don't give a f**k! This is crazy, boo."
Fowler had been meeting at Murphy's house to write with his son, Miles, for the year prior to filming Coming 2 America, so he'd gotten any nerves about meeting his hero out of his system before arriving to set. He wasn't prepared, however, for how surreal it would be to see him as Akeem, or Sexual Chocolate soul singer Randy Watson, or Mr. Clarence.
"I'd just be in awe, like, my mouth agape, and my co-star, Nomzamo [Mbatha], would have to nudge me a little bit, like, 'Do your line!' I'd forget I'm in the movie," Fowler remembers. "It felt like I was still watching TV when I was eight. It felt like I'd just stepped into the TV and joined a film that I truly appreciate and that's held a special place in my heart for so long."
And then there was Arsenio, whispering a joke to him right before director Craig Brewer would call action, forcing Fowler to fight to keep it together. And Leslie Jones and Tracy Morgan, one-upping each other as Lavelle's mom and uncle. And Wesley Snipes, who went Method to play a villainous, dancing general from Nextdoria and stayed in character the entire shoot.
There were only two things that didn't work with Fowler's fantasy: First, that he was not able to don prosthetics in a second role, to join Murphy and Arsenio in one of those barbershop scenes that killed him as a kid. "I thought there was going to be a moment where they might ask me to put on prosthetics. I didn't want to ask! They probably would have fired me," he laughs. "It was just great to see Eddie do that. When he gets into zone, he's unrivaled, man. The dude's just on a different level, and he hasn't missed the step. He's still the best actor I've seen on camera."
The second regret is that amid our global pandemic, Coming 2 America is skipping theaters for a streaming debut. Fowler had hoped to rent out a theater in his childhood hometown in Maryland to screen it for family, but might have to settle for a more COVID-friendly showing with friends at home. "I just can't let this slip by," he sighs.
He can't help thinking about the big, Hollywood premiere that could have been, though. Fowler and his co-stars would all wear original designs by costumer Ruth E. Carter. "We'd have African dancers just rock out on the red carpet," he ponders. "It wouldn't even be a red carpet! It'd be red flower pedals. I had it all mapped out on my head and then the apocalypse came."
"But it is what it is, and you got to make the most of it," Fowler adds, breaking into another contagious grin. "I don't care if it was a huge red carpet event or a Zoom call, I don't care. I'm going to have a good time with whatever is given to me. That's what I do. That's what I've always done, and I'm not going to take anything for granted. This is amazing to me."
Coming 2 America is now streaming exclusively on Prime Video.