Nomzamo Mbatha felt the very image of royalty as she stepped into the stunning wedding gown as Crown Princess Mirembe in “Coming 2 America.”
But there was major problem for five-foot-two Mirembe walking down the aisle in her lavish wedding to royal prince Lavelle Junson (Jermaine Fowler) — actually walking with the stunning 15-foot train made of the African woven fabric ankara flowing behind her.
“I felt like a such princess, the dress was so gorgeous, and I was told ‘OK, try to move.’ And I literally could not move,” says Mbatha, laughing. “Then I tried to walk and I literally couldn’t. The dress weighed 83 pounds.”
The South African actress smiles serenely and seems to move effortlessly in the Zamunda nuptials scene for “Coming 2 America” (now streaming on Amazon Prime). But Mbatha needed help with that dress, a concession to the fictional country’s wedding blow-out tradition.
In the original 1988 “Coming to America,” Eddie Murphy’s Prince Akeem’s American bride Lisa McDowell (Shari Headley) wore a pink wedding dress with a train that flowed far down the aisle.
“We needed to end it the same way as the original. People remember that dress, the way the train went out the door,” says “Coming 2 America” costume designer Ruth E. Carter. “So we made a dress that filled the aisle side-to-side and went more than 10 feet back. At the same time, we made the new Zamunda dress our own. It was our fairy tale ending.”
Carter estimates that the new dress required 100 yards of fabric to make the ruffled super-train. A separate, special room of Atlanta’s Tyler Perry Studios became wedding dress HQ, with the tables pushed out to make room.
“It was insane. The dress was on a mannequin and you couldn’t get inside, because the train filled up the room,” Mbatha says.
The completed full dress had to be rolled to the set on carts. On the set, filmmakers brainstormed ways to make Mbatha’s stalled walk to the altar a reality.
Set workers placed three rolling dollies underneath the train, yet still movement was difficult. “I would go left and the train would go right with the carts,” says Mbatha, who saw her screen groom laughing as her runaway train pushed him out of the camera shot. “Jermaine would be like, ‘You’re pushing me out!’ And I’d be like, ‘It’s the dress. It’s moving on its own.'”
Another idea involved having a small assistant ride on the cart under the train, pushing off and steering with her hands. Ultimately, director Craig Brewer says the effects department rigged wires on both sides to pull the train straight. Mbatha was able to walk in sturdy, unseen heels.
“Whenever I see Nomzamo waving with that smile on her face, I know that she is doing everything she can to keep it together while she pulls that enormous train,” says Brewer. “She really worked her core that day.”
Carter was able to focus on some of the other stand-out wedding outfits, including Princess Meeka (Kiki Lane) who showed off Zamunda royal aspirations in a gold painted dress and a ceremonial metal crown made by the film’s metalsmith. “She got the Cadillac of Crowns,” says Carter. Wesley Snipes, as one-time Zamunda foe General Izzi, showed off impressive dance moves in a specially made kente-cloth kilt.
When Murphy transformed from King Akeem to perform for the newlyweds as infamous Sexual Chocolate singer Randy Watson, he wore a specially tailored Elvis Presley-inspired jumpsuit.
With the bulky train removed, Mbatha’s Princess Mirembe was able to dance along to the music in her simpler, elegant dress.
But Mbatha reveled watching the full dress ensemble on the screen.
“It was glorious, it took my breath away. I just thought it was such a beautiful moment,” says Mbatha, noting that fans of the original have mimicked that wedding dress. “It’ll be very funny to see people try and remake my dress for a Halloween costume.”