It’s been 33 years since the enchanting tale of a young African prince in search of his bride in New York captured the hearts of moviegoers, ensuring the romantic comedy Coming to America status as a cult classic.
The sequel, Coming 2 America, picks up decades later, with Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall reprising their roles as Prince Akeem Joffer and his sidekick Semmi. Prince Akeem is the heir apparent to the throne, so the pair return to Queens on a mission to find the son he never knew, Lavelle (played by Jermaine Fowler), fulfilling a promise to the dying King Jaffe (James Earl Jones).
Production designer Jefferson Sage created the two very distinct worlds of the fictional country of Zamunda and the urban environs of New York City. The former, a tropical paradise, magically comes to life on the grounds of rapper Rick Ross’s palatial 12-bedroom estate in Atlanta (also the former home of boxing legend Evander Holyfield and the filming location of 2018’s Superfly). The production team found several of the 109 rooms and the 235-acre grounds of the largest residence in Georgia to be the perfect royal setting.
Sage first looked at the source material and, taking it a step further, modernized the story for a new generation while still retaining its mythical quality. “Our goal was to honour the original and update it,” he tells AD. “We discussed the storybook fairy-tale nature of the story of Zamunda and the lifestyle they have, where it comes from and how it informs things.”
Creating a backstory is often an important part of the design process. “This is the ruling family of Zamunda for the past hundred years. We see ancestors in the paintings and use layers and layers of old stuff dating back to tribal origins,” the designer says. It’s all about creating a lineage. “This is not a cold, conservative family, and they have very good taste and are connoisseurs in European and African art and photography.” Fortunately, for set decorator Doug Mowat, Atlanta contains a wealth of African and Black cultural artifacts, and he located plenty of interesting sculptures and pieces. Since the royal palace features an art gallery, the set designers created many of the paintings from scratch, working with digital artists who painted Murphy’s likeness. They also licensed African art from a Paris art dealer.
Several of the mansion’s bedroom suites were used for the royal bedchambers. The main suite features an extravagantly detailed silver leaf bed, well-appointed draperies with swags and fringe, and art pieces, all in a silver-and-blue colour palette that plays against the existing gilt molding. The foyer and rotunda that was reinvented as a gallery space was also a key set, and the ballroom was a major focal point, as the film features star-studded dance numbers and a wedding, coronation party, and funeral. Sage put on his entertainment planning hat, noting, “We tried to be specific in the lighting and also did a fairly elaborate redesign of the furnishings that included a lit bar with a giant overhead canopy of live flowers.” The sky was the limit with the addition of lavish floral arrangements, and the rooms were dressed every single day with new greenery that was, in some cases, shipped in from Europe.
One of the designer’s favourite sets was the iconic My-T-Sharp Barbershop, which was featured prominently in the original film. “It was such a New York statement and a time capsule that we wanted to keep it the same. Thirty years has passed and nothing has changed with the characters,” he says. “It has a sense of coming home and really anchors our movie to the previous one.” It was filmed on a soundstage at Tyler Perry Studios, and the art department combed eBay for old images of Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King, and other prominent African American figures for the barbershop’s walls. In a case of serendipity, Mowat struck gold when he found the original barbershop chairs at a rental house in Los Angeles. The original shoeshine stand was also uncovered (sadly, neglect rendered the plywood rotten) and shipped to Atlanta so the design team could build a replica.
Sage also took into consideration the eye-catching ceremonial wardrobe created by Oscar-winning costume designer Ruth E. Carter (she won for her work on Black Panther). Careful not to clash, the pair had a great collaboration, ensuring each design element was an integral part of the visual. “I would look at the colours and shapes she was doing and scale back the color at a certain point if it didn’t feel right. It’s a fairy-tale story, but I still wanted it to feel real,” he says. “I also looked to Ruth for inspiration to go bigger as she was always pushing it to an extra level, no holds barred. I went with the idea that this family had wealth beyond their wildest dreams, and with that much money, what would they have if they could have anything.”
This article originally appeared on Architectural Digest US | Cathy Whitlock