“My whole life I’ve been told what my future was gonna look like. I just wanna find my own thing.”
Those words are spoken by Elijah – a young African American in Memphis who dreams of being a Master Sommelier – in “Uncorked” (2020). It’s an unassuming film that I found very moving, and its themes have resonated with me. I’m actually bummed out it has taken me this long to get to this lovely film since it was released last March. It takes its time telling its story, but it casts a spell over you. It’s refreshing to see a movie about wine and food that involves black characters and that topples stereotypes. “Uncorked” marks the auspicious directorial debut of veteran TV writer Prentice Penny.
Elijah doesn’t want to take over his dad’s barbecue business in Tennessee – which the family endearingly refers to as “the stand.” He helps out running it, but his heart is not in it – arriving late or forgetting his shifts. He’d rather be at his part time job at the wine shop. When asked by Tanya – a young girl he starts dating – to explain his love for wine he touchingly responds, “Growing up, we didn’t have money to go nowhere. When I get a wine from someplace like France, I just feel like I’m there.”
He understands that this is an unexpected career path and a difficult one as well. The Master Sommelier exam is extremely hard and has one of the lowest pass rates. Tanya encourages him. “There’s always gonna be a reason we shouldn’t do something,” she mentions.
He passes the entry exam and tells his family about his choice. When he announces it at the dinner table, his brother-in-law hears Somalia and questions why he wants to mess with pirates. His father, Louis, thinks this is a passing fancy. Elijah wanted to be a DJ for a while and gave it up. “Hey, if you want to tell people what to drink with their chitlins, I’m fine,” Louis tells him.
Louis inherited the business from his father who couldn’t get a loan in the 60s to start the enterprise and got the money from a dice game. Louis has tried to pass his passion on to Elijah, teaching him how to cook from the time he was 2 years old – and encouraging him to go with him on trips to select woods for the fires. He’s also leased a second location which is going to appeal to a younger clientele and wants Elijah to help him run it. Elijah is torn. His mother, Sylvia, supports him – “Elijah, this is your life. And at the end of the day, only one living it is you.”
The movie follows Elijah’s studying of wine while the conflict with this father plays out simultaneously. Elijah joins a study group preparing to learn everything about wine theory, service, and blind tasting. Although the issue of race is never brought up, he stands out for being African American and working class where the others are affluent. One of them’s nickname is Harvard. Well into the course, the program gives him the opportunity to travel to Paris, but it’s expensive. There are affecting shots of Elijah experiencing France that show us how his world is expanding. He is an outlier – not just in his family – but in society at large.
Elijah’s attempt to balance his dream and his father’s expectations is heartfelt. Director Penny keenly observes how the father and son communicate. It’s the exchanges between the two of them that are the most stirring. Courtney B. Vance is wonderful as the tough but loving pop.
Penny makes the connection between the love and care that goes into barbecuing – and winemaking. In the opening scene he parallel cuts between the harvesting and wine making process and Louis and his team preparing the daily menu. It makes a nice statement.
Elijah: “How do you choose between family and your dream?”
Available to stream on Netflix.
Written by Prentice Penny
Directed by Prentice Penny
Starring Mamoudou Athie, Courtney B. Vance, Niecy Nash, Matt McGorry, Sasha Compère, Gil Ozeri, Kelly Jenrette, Bernard David Jones and Meera Rohit Kumbhani
Writer and Director Prentice Penny on Bringing “Uncorked” to the Screen
“I work in television, and people were always like, “What do you want to do, movie-wise?” I was getting offered to write remakes and sequels and reboots of movies. In TV, you really get a chance to write in your own voice, and I was afraid that if I was writing a reboot or a sequel, I’d be writing in somebody else’s voice and I was afraid that I would never discover my own. And so I wanted to hold off to write something until I felt very personally about it, and as I discovered my voice. At the same time, I was becoming a father, with my own three kids. And it made me examine my father’s relationship with me in a very different way, and just kind of understand him less as quote-unquote my father, but as just a man trying to figure things out the same way I’m trying to figure it out. I wanted to explore what it was like for me, and also to see more father-son stories. I love them, especially movies like Good Will Hunting and Manchester by the Sea, but I often felt like the people of color, slice of life, father-son dynamic movies are always about the father being absent. As opposed to just being about their existence, and I didn’t like that. That wasn’t my story. I feel like you’ve seen that; that wasn’t my relationship with my father. So, I wanted to write a movie that felt the same way that a Gus Van Sant movie would feel. That became sort of the drive. I grew up in a family business, where my family ran a furniture store that my grandfather started and my dad took over when he had a stroke and dropped out if college. I was sort of being groomed to be next up, and I didn’t want to do that. It became kind of a big indictment. What I realized in hindsight was my father was sort of taking it as a, “Why don’t you love me the way I love my father” slight, even though that wasn’t how I perceived it. That’s what he couldn’t articulate to me, but that’s what he was feeling.
I wanted to write about that, and I knew I wanted the father in my story that have a family business that felt sort of blue collar. I had friends of mine that ran family restaurants, and also it was very visual. But restaurants feel like, if you have a family restaurant, everybody works in the restaurant. That was a big thing. And then I knew that I wanted the son’s thing to have a little more rarefied air, like quote-unquote white collar or whatever; more creative. And I knew I didn’t want that to be writing, because nobody wants to watch a movie about a guy writing. I was like, “Well, what could he want to do?” I couldn’t really figure it out, and then I went to Paris for a cousin’s wedding. I had never been to Europe before, and I was not even a wine drinker. But if I’m going to like wine, it has to happen in Paris, that’s the place where it is. I took a wine 101 class, and the guy made it super interesting and super easy to understand. He kind of demystified it for me, and I just got super into it the whole trip. I was watching things about wine and about somms, and I was like, “This is should be what the son wants to do. He should want to do this.” Obviously, looking back, you’re like, “Oh, yeah, food and wine. That’s a natural pairing.” And the son and the dad aren’t. It became very visual; it became very interesting. I feel like we hadn’t really seen that with people of color. People of color drink wine all the time and are all in that world, but I hadn’t really seen that on film. It’s just interesting to set the movie in Paris, and to see an African-American man try wine through Paris. I’ve never seen that in an American movie. We travel, but you never see us internationally. The most you see us go to is Atlanta or Miami? So, I was like, “How do we give this movie some scope and make it feel as true as we are?” All these things became more interesting, so that’s kind of the genesis of all those things converging at the same time. (screenrant.com)
Penny on Casting “Uncorked”
“Niecy was the only person I had [in mind]. I didn’t know Mamoudou. I had seen him in “Patti Cake$” and “The Get Down,”but I had written the movie 2014, so I only knew the type of character I wanted. Niecy was the only one that I actually wrote the part for. I had worked with Niecy on a short-lived Fox sitcom in 2008. I remember her telling me this story, and I could be butchering it. But either her mom or her grandmother was sick in the hospital, and that’s how she kind of got into stand up. She was just trying to entertain her mom or grandma. And that story just never left me. As I kept thinking about the mom, I just kept thinking, “Who is this woman?” The dad, I was writing with my father in mind, so that was easy. Even with the son, it’s a lot of my energy in that part. But the mom is not like my mom. I was just like, “Who is this?” The story just kept sticking in my head, so when I was developing the character, I just developed it around Niecy. A lot of times, when you see Niecy, she’s very glammed up. But I wanted to see a character that was more stripped down. And when she did the show for HBO, Getting On, I was like, “Oh, yes. That’s close to what this character should be.” I would write with her in mind, and I would tell her, “Hey, I’m writing this movie. I wrote this part for you.” She was like, “Yeah, I’ll do it.” And then she read it, and she was like, “100%, I’ll do it. Let me know when you get the money.” It took two or three years from that point to get the money. But to her credit, when we got the money, she was in. (screenrant.com)
Actor Mamoudou Athie on “Uncorked”
For Athie, who appeared in “Sorry for Your Loss” and “The Circle,” the film was a chance to work with a director who had a mission. “It’s really exciting when a filmmaker has a goal and has something in mind that he’s doing,” Athie says. “A lot of the films involving the black experience had the specter of white supremacy on top of it. But we have other stories of black people in America,” he adds, “Sometimes they have nothing to do with anything but our own families, and our own cultural experience outside of trauma. We wanted to explore that.” “We have these other stories. These should be celebrated as well,” says Athie, who was born in Mauritania in Northern Africa but raised in the U.S. Athie said that before “Uncorked,” he had a peripheral interest in wine, but now “I’ve refined my palate a lot, I know what I’m in the mood for.” He got help learning the sommelier’s spiel from DLynn Proctor, a noted wine expert who appeared in the documentary “Somm,” and who also happens to be producer Datari Turner’s brother. Nashville sommelier Ryan Radish also consulted, and ended up improving everyone’s knowledge of wine. The tasting examination scenes are particularly realistic. “It’s truly insane. It’s a ton of memorization,” says Athie, “This is comparable to being a doctor, it’s so intense. It was baffling to me. But they use this grid, so it’s like a process of elimination, which made it so much simpler to see how it could be broken down.” Athie, who was looking forward to travelling to London for the first time to shoot “Jurassic World: Dominion” before it was put on hold, said shooting in Paris was a highlight of the experience — along with the ribs at Memphis’ Cozy Corner, that is. “It was crazy. I was super jet-lagged, but one thing I’ll never lose is my memory of shooting in the Musee d’Orsay. We had an entire wing all to ourselves,” he remembers. Penny had hoped to celebrate at the film’s screening at SXSW, but the cancellation due to coronavirus meant he wouldn’t be able to celebrate with the cast and his family. Instead, Penny celebrated the Netflix premiere Friday with takeout from Bludso’s, one of L.A.’s top spots for barbecue. (variety.com)
About Writer and Director Prentice Penny
Penny, born in Los Angeles and trained in filmmaking at the University of Southern California, got his start in Hollywood writing on Mara Brock Akil’s hit sitcom “Girlfriends.” He then spent years contributing to the writers’ rooms on, and often producing episodes of, “Scrubs,” “Happy Endings,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” and more. By the time he became showrunner and executive producer of creator-star Issa Rae’s “Insecure” (now nominated for eight 2020 Emmy Awards including outstanding comedy series), Penny had seen enough writers’ rooms to know the secrets behind great collaboration. This year, he wrote and directed the acclaimed Netflix film “Uncorked,” starring Mamoudou Athie, Courtney B. Vance, and Niecy Nash. (backstage.com)