In John Landis' Coming To America, Vanessa Bell Calloway plays what is an incredibly memorable role. Playing Princess Imani Izzi, she is arranged to be married to Eddie Murphy's Prince Akeem at the start of the film... but suffers the issue of not having a personality divorced from her devotion to her would-be husband. For a small part it is a great one – though the actor has now come out saying that she feels she would have had a much bigger part in the film if she had lighter skin.
Vanessa Bell Calloway is reprising her role as Princess Imani Izzi in the upcoming Coming 2 America, and it was while recently speaking with Page Six that she aired some grievances with the production of the original movie. According to Calloway, she originally auditioned for the female lead in the movie, Lisa McDowell, but she feels that she was passed over because of the tone of her skin. Said the actor,
When you have white people hiring black people in movies, sometimes a certain look is wanted. [They] wanted a light-skinned girl. I just wasn’t light enough, even though Eddie had the final say on who played Lisa.
The role of Lisa McDowell in Coming To America was ultimately given to Shari Headley, who also reprises her role in Coming 2 America – albeit this time she is the queen of Zamunda. Continuing, Vanessa Bell Calloway said that the casting was indicative of a larger systemic issue that has to deal with perception of race in the world, not just in Hollywood. She said,
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. I didn’t want the part of Imani, I wanted to be Lisa — I had read the script and I wanted the bigger role.
Vanessa Bell Calloway may have had a small role in Coming To America, which was only her second feature film, but she has continued to work consistently ever since. Primarily performing on the small screen, she has had recurring and one-off roles on a wide variety of of shows in the last three decades. In the last 10 years she has had a regular role on the Showtime series Shameless, which came to an end in 2020.
As noted, her next film will be director Craig Brewer's Coming 2 America, which features a huge number of returning stars from the original movie. In addition to Vanessa Bell Calloway, Eddie Murphy, and Shari Headley, the Amazon Prime film also stars Arsenio Hall, James Earl Jones, John Amos, Louie Anderson, and Clint Smith. Though it was originally supposed to come out at the end of 2020, it's now set to start streaming for Amazon subscribers on March 5.