It’s easy to feel intimidated by wine. All those hard-to-pronounce names, so many vineyards to remember. That’s the world Elijah, played by Mamoudou Athie, wants to enter in the new Netflix movie “Uncorked,” about a young man who dreams of taking the brutally difficult master sommelier exam instead of taking over his family’s Memphis barbecue restaurant.
It’s also the way director Prentice Penny felt before he was invited to a wedding in Paris and somehow caught the wine bug. Penny’s journey to becoming a wine buff — taking an intro to wine class, reading books and watching documentaries — was part of the inspiration for “Uncorked.”
Early in the film, Elijah breaks it down for a wine store customer by relating wines to hip hop artists. Chardonnay is like the Jay-Z of wines, riesling is the Drake, while pinot grigio might be Kanye West, he explains, winning her admiration in the process.
“That was the first scene of the movie I wrote,” Penny says. “I wanted to make the audience feel not intimidated — the way a wine guy broke it down for me.”
The rest of the story, about family and the weight of expectations versus charting your own course, came partially from Penny’s own family experience. Penny, a writer on TV shows like “Insecure,” “Scrubs” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” confronted a similar dynamic with his own family. “My grandfather started a furniture store and my father dropped out of college to run it. Growing up, that was supposed to be my responsibility and I just didn’t want to do it,” Penny says.
Penny, who wrote the film and makes his feature directing debut, wanted to show a different view of fathers and sons. “Especially for fathers and sons of color, the crux is often the father being absent, he says. There aren’t as many slice-of-life films like “Manchester by the Sea.” “I wanted to have that for us,” he says.
Elijah’s gruff father is played by Courtney B. Vance, whose character takes his son’s rejection of the restaurant as a “rejection of himself,” Penny says. The endlessly supportive matriarch is played by Niecy Nash.
Though Nash’s character isn’t based directly on Penny’s mother, he says they have one important trait in common. “The one commonality they have is my mom’s constant love and support for me wanting to become a writer,” Penny says, explaining that when he came up there weren’t many filmmakers of color he could look up to beyond Spike Lee.
But he knew nobody wanted to watch a film about being a writer, so he made the setting a barbecue restaurant. “I knew I wanted it to be a family business,” Penny says. Looking at the important cities for barbecue, Texas seemed like it had been seen more often on film, so it came down to either Kansas City or Memphis, which both have a huge influence of African American people on the city, Penny says.
“You hadn’t seen Memphis as much,” Penny says, listing the influences that make the city its own character. “It’s where Dr. King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel, the influence of civil rights in that area at the time… and obviously the music — not just hip hop, but Stax Records and Elvis Presley and Sun Records.”
Penny was “a “hundred percent’ involved in choosing the film’s soundtrack — Memphis trap music that switches to French hip hop when Elijah travels to Paris. Other movies that feature wine lean “into the sweet” with the music, he says, but like wine and barbecue, “Uncorked,” plays on the salty vs. the sweet. “I wanted to cut across the beautiful imagery of the wine with something that was contrary to that.”
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.