Movie Review – Uncorked (2020)
Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
Prentice Penny is a black writer and producer who has mostly worked in television, on shows such as Girlfriends, Scrubs, Happy Endings and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. He most recently worked on HBO’s Insecure for which he directed a few episodes. This film represents his feature debut in the director’s chair. It focuses on a young African-American man who is aspiring to become a sommelier and also attain a Master Sommelier Diploma, which was created in 1969, and is something that only 200 people in the world possess. There are various ways to achieve the title of a sommelier, but, in order to get that specific diploma or to be certified at the highest level, one has to go through a lot of education and training and pass a very difficult test. Some argue that it’s easier and possibly cheaper to become a medical doctor or well-trained attorney. Penny’s film tries to underscore that difficulty, particularly through the eyes of an African-American and through the context of the black experience.
Last year, USA Today ran an article about André Mack, an African-American sommelier and winemaker. He is probably the best known African-American in the wine industry. The article talked about how Mack is one of very few black people in the wine industry, meaning he’s one of very few black people who are business owners in the wine industry. Mack owns his own vineyards and makes his own wine. His labels even include references to hip hop or rap music. He wants to change the perception and in fact reality that wine is this pretentious and elitist thing, only for wealthy white people. He wants to broaden its appeal among the black community. Other organizations, such as Urban Connoisseurs and the Association of African American Vintners, are doing the same, but Mack was influenced by film and television to pursue wine, stressing the importance of representation in media. There was a documentary called Somm (2013), which featured Dylnn Proctor, a black aspiring sommelier. That doc helped with that representation. Penny’s film would also be in line with helping in that representation.
Mamoudou Athie (The Front Runner and Patti Cake$) stars as Elijah, a black man, working for his father who owns a BBQ restaurant in Memphis, Tenn. He mainly works in the kitchen cutting and cooking meat. He also has another job working at a liquor store called Joe’s Wine where he’s become one of the most knowledgeable black people in the city about wine. He even educates black people who come into the store to buy wine, using hip hop or rap references like André Mack does. Elijah is even able to get a girlfriend based on that knowledge. He eventually starts taking classes to become a sommelier.
Courtney B. Vance (American Crime Story and Law & Order: Criminal Intent) co-stars as Louis, the father to Elijah. He owns and operates the BBQ restaurant called Papa’s Kitchen. His place is known for its ribs and various pork products. It’s a business that Louis inherited from his father who originated it. Louis is now on the cusp of opening a second restaurant that’s more upscale. Yet, he’s getting older and he’s getting to the point where he has to think about retirement and possibly passing the business along to his son.
The problem is that Elijah doesn’t want to take over the restaurant. Elijah wants to become a sommelier, and pretty much all the people in Elijah’s life support him doing this, except Louis. Louis’ dissent isn’t necessarily do to his belief that being a sommelier or the wine industry is a pretentious or elitist thing. His dissent comes from a character standpoint. Apparently, Elijah has a history of doing things and then abandoning them. His father sees being a sommelier as another one of those things that he’s going to abandon. He’s not sure why this would be any different than the last time. Louis also has this issue of wanting to pass the business onto his son because it’s a thing of legacy and pride.
There’s no acknowledgment of the fact that Louis also has an adult daughter and that he could also pass the business to her. His insistence that his son should get the business is a bit sexist. No one ever makes an issue of it though. His insistence seems there only to build tension and drama between father and son. Thankfully, the performances between Athie and Vance are so good that the insistence or contrivance can be dismissed. Both of their interactions with Sylvia are great as well. Sylvia is played by Niecy Nash (When They See Us and Claws), and she is the wife to Louis and mother to Elijah.
Matt McGorry (How To Get Away With Murder and Orange Is The New Black) also co-stars as Eric aka “Harvard.” He’s a fellow student, training to be a sommelier. His father works for a bank or some kind of financial institution. At first, he seems like an antagonist to Elijah. Immediately though, he befriends Elijah and helps to convince him to come to Paris to continue studying to become a sommelier. His entrance and then exit could have been flushed out more, but, by the end, he’s just a plot device that didn’t seem to be needed. McGorry is a funny guy, but he’s not even the comic relief here. That distinction goes to Gil Ozeri who plays Richie, another fellow student who is sheer comic relief.
Yet, Penny’s film leans more on the relationship between Elijah and Louis, which in the end boils down to Elijah not wanting to have the same job as his father. This is fine, but it’s not as strong a conflict as it could have been. It does seem like Elijah loves his father and has no real problem helping out. Therefore, it seems odd that he simply can’t do both. When Louis tells of the second restaurant he’s opening, he suggests a wine bar at which Elijah could be a sommelier. Unless Elijah wants to be a sommelier at a specific restaurant that’s more upscale or fancier, then I don’t get the struggle. Louis must understand that a sommelier is a person who works in a restaurant. He owns a restaurant, so his son is still connected.
There is a point that Louis makes where he says that Elijah thinks he’s better than his family. For him, it’s a bit of classism thing. I thought the film might echo this theme when Elijah visits Paris. He’s hanging out around mostly white people, but there is a shot of him riding a bicycle through a predominantly black neighborhood. The contrast is visually there, and Elijah makes a comment later about black people being in predominantly white spaces. Unfortunately, that theme isn’t born out into the greater conflict of whether or not Elijah will achieve his goal of becoming a certified sommelier or even if he should. Technically, he is a sommelier. He just wants to achieve a special certification or medal that says he’s a master. Besides the bragging rights, it’s not clear what that affords him. I understand that if you’re an athlete, winning a championship or the Olympic medal is an obvious goal, but it’s not clear here what having it will actually do for Elijah and whatever that is, is it something that’s only usable in white spaces?
Running Time: 1 hr. and 44 mins.
Available on Netflix.