When the comedy film “Coming To America” premiered in theaters in 1988, Black women everywhere expressed their dismay that Eddie Murphy‘s character, Prince Akeem had colorism issues.
At issue was Vanessa Bell Calloway‘s character, Imani, who was groomed by her father to be Akeem’s obedient and subservient wife.
On the day they were to be married, Akeem ordered her to “bark like a dog” and “hop on one leg” in a humiliating and degrading manner.
Akeem and his loyal man servant traveled to New York to pick his queen, Lisa, an arrogant and self-entitled light skinned woman, not a dark-skinned, regal, beautiful African woman like his mother, the Queen.
In an interview with Page Six, Calloway confirmed suspicions that colorism issues played a role in her casting as Murphy’s queen-to-be.
“When you have white people hiring Black people in movies, sometimes a certain look is wanted,” said Calloway, who added that Murphy and the other executives “wanted a light-skinned girl” to play Lisa.
“I just wasn’t light enough. Even though Eddie had the final say on who played Lisa.”
Murphy chose Shari Headley to play the part of Lisa McDowell.
“That’s something that we’ve always dealt with within our race: A lot of men were indoctrinated by having a white woman or light-skinned woman on their arm,” Calloway said. “I didn’t want the part of Imani, I wanted to be Lisa — I had read the script and I wanted the bigger role.”
Black female moviegoers shared her frustration. They wrote letters to Murphy, the movie production company, and Ebony and Jet magazines, voicing their outrage over the optics of a stunningly beautiful African woman barking like a dog onscreen. While Lisa received $500,000 diamond and ruby earrings.
Calloway ultimately accepted the part despite her disappointment.
“The real deal is, when you’re in a situation like that, you wanna be a part of an Eddie Murphy movie. I wasn’t gonna say no! I would’ve loved to have had the lead part, but I was very happy to be in the movie. I can’t lie about that. I said, ‘I’ll make the best out of this and I’ll be the best.’ It was a smaller role but it was a glamorous part to play. And Shari did a great job.”