Durban-born actress, Nomzamo Mbatha, says filming Coming 2 America, was a mirror of her own journey from Africa to the United States. Starring in the movie marks a huge moment for Mbatha, whose career started when she was the runner-up in the MTV Base VJ Search, in 2012. She went on to star in Tell Me Sweet Something, The Jakes Are Missing, and in Isibaya and Umlilo.Then, in 2019, she took the plunge and headed to America in the hopes of making it in the film business.
Six months later she landed the role of Mirembe, the girl who catches the prince’s eye in the sequel to Eddie Murphy’s smash eighties’ hit, Coming to America.
“For a very long time, black people, African people, were portrayed in media and film as savage-like or lesser than,” Mbatha said.
“What Coming to America did, when it came out in 1988, it was the black fairytale. It was a reimagined version what Africa would be if we were all just royal and beautiful. “Before your Wakanda [the fictional home of Marvel’s Black Panther] there was Coming to America.
It moved culture and transformed [how we] tell different stories .... now, all these years later, it has become my personal ‘coming to America’ story as it is my breakout role.”
Mirembe is appointed to be the personal hairdresser of new Zamundan prince Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler), and has dreams of owning her own barbershop one day. In true romantic comedy style their friendship develops into something much deeper. Mbatha, who grew up in KwaMashu, said she hit it off with her co-star the moment they met.
“He [Jermaine] is such a good person and was just raised right,” Mbatha said. He justs respects women so much. Jermaine, as well as Craig [Brewer, the director] would make sure that people knew how to pronounce my name. I have a deep love and deep respect for him as a human being and also just watching him fully immerse into this character.”
Mbatha and Fowler spent a lot of time together off set doing coffee runs and chatting over dinner. The popular young American comedian also took her to comedy clubs in Atlanta, Georgia, to give the real “black American experience”.
“We spent a lot of time together to truly bring the chemistry onto the screen in the most authentic way and I hope we did,” Mbatha said. Coming 2 America also meant she got to rub shoulders with Hollywood veterans, Murphy, Arsenio Hall, James Earl Jones, Tracy Morgan and Wesley Snipes. It was, says Mbatha, a surreal experience for a girl from a KwaZulu-Natal township.
“A true out of body experience, I have to be honest,” she told Weekend Witness. “I was surrounded by Hollywood royalty, people who have truly made their mark and changed the course of black Hollywood as well. It’s just insane to be mentored by, you know, all these huge stars and to try and think that you belong in this moment.
”A key moment for Mbatha was when Shari Headley, who plays Queen Lisa, gave her a pep talk on set. “She caught me in a corner and she put her hands on my shoulders and said to me: ‘Nomzamo, this is your moment. You need to believe it. I’ve been where you are, 32 or 33 years ago when we made the first film’. I remember just feeling comforted to know that I was seen and I was heard and I was taken care of.”
The cast also had plenty of fun during filming at the Tyler Perry Studios, with Morgan playing music and encouraging his co-stars to dance and Hall causing havoc by telling jokes just before a scene was due to be shot. “It was just an awesome experience,” says Mbatha, “and we new kids, you know, me, Jermaine Fowler, KiKi Layne, realising they were passing on the torch to us with the sequel for such a beloved classic.”
Another key element in the film is the costumes, and the influence of two South African designers, Maxhosa Africa by Laduma Ngxokolo and Palesa Mokumbung, can be seen in many of the outfits worn by the cast. Mbatha said it was a huge moment for SA fashion to have Oscar-winning costumer designer, Ruth Adams, recognise them and other young design talent from Africa.
“When I went into fittings, I was like: ‘Whoa, I’m wearing Laduma! What a beautiful moment this is going to be for my people, for my home.’“ And, I would scream at the people in the palace, because they were wearing Maxhosa. I’d say: ‘You do know you’re wearing African luxury right? That was me ... I was fan-girling,” she added.
Despite her success, Mbatha, who matriculated at Bechet High School and then did a Bachelor of Commerce at the University of Cape Town, is committed to keeping it real. She is passionate about her work as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and has travelled on six UNHCR missions to advocate for refugees across the African continent.
In May 2019, Mbatha gave an impassioned speech at the Africa Dialogue Series at United Nations headquarters in New York, alongside the Deputy Secretary General, Amina J. Mohammed. Her participation, on the youth panel, focused on educating the African girl child. And, last year, when the world was struck by Covid-19, Mbatha raised over R3 million through her Lighthouse Foundation, to help the unemployed and homeless with food parcels and to provide essential supplies for newborns at government and rural hospitals.
She also lent her voice as host and guest presenter for Global Citizen’s One World: Together at Home and ViacomCBS Networks Africa’s two-hour special, Africa Day Benefit Concert at Home. Mbatha said her foundation was still helping South Africans affected by the coronavirus pandemic. “Right now we are busy putting together packages for 500 school children around the country. We also have our bursary fund where we raised over a million rand,” she added.
Describing her charity work as the “calling” of her life, Mbatha said: “I will continue to speak up and to be an ambassador for the UN refugee agency because I feel that the narrative of the African refugee has always been the child with the fly on the face.
“I want to change that narrative to show that Africans, who are forcibly displaced because of war and because of conflict are people who are more than capable. We have so much to offer.”