‘Uncorked’ Director Prentice Penny On Navigating The Politics Of Race And Wine In His Feature Debut

Uncorked is the kind of gently-paced, pleasantly watchable food and family dramedy that feels perfect for streaming. It’s a movie that speaks in an indoor voice, a story that you can just sort of luxuriate in for a while with a robe and a glass of wine.

Wine is both Uncorked‘s ideal pairing and its subject, following a young protagonist (Elijah, played by Mamoudou Athie) as he helps with the family business, a Memphis BBQ joint run by his parents, played by Courtney P. Vance and Niecy Nash, while dreaming of life as a master sommelier. Written and directed by Insecure showrunner and executive producer Prentice Penny, Uncorked hits at a time when watching people cook for and eat out at restaurants is its own peculiar kind of escapism — a thing we all recognize and hope we can do again some day.

Uncorked is a movie about a black sommelier, but it’s not really a movie about a black man trying to infiltrate the white world of sommeliers. The latter, Penny says, is the “expected” version of this story, the one a few execs who read the script still wanted it to be. But Uncorked is much more specific than that, more true to the way men of color who were still relatively young during the Obama era thought of themselves and their career possibilities, Penny says. A mindset that acknowledged added difficulties, but still saw possibility.

I spoke to Penny, who is making his feature film debut with Uncorked and last year signed a two-year deal with HBO, this past week. He explained that while the idea of forging your own path outside the family business was something that came from his own experiences, wine, in particular, was more allegorical than strictly autobiographical. Going into entertainment was for him what going into wine was for Elijah — something “airy-fairy” that dad might not understand.

So how are you doing? Are you sheltered in place?

I pretty much have been. I just came to my office to do these interviews, but I’m going back home after that…I’m in LA.

So tell me about how this project came about.

I was wanting to write a movie that was pretty personal. I felt like in TV, you know, you’re always kind of trying to mimic the voice of the show (Penny has worked on Brooklyn Nine Nine, Happy Endings, Girlfriends, and The Hustle). I wanted to be able to write something in my own voice and kind of figure out what that was. At the same time, I was also becoming a father and it made me want to examine my relationship with my father more. As I was going through fatherhood, I just was like, “Oh my dad was just a guy trying to figure it out, like me.”

It just humanized him more to me. And I felt like, typically African-American men, unlike their white counterparts who get to make movies like Good Will Hunting and Manchester by the Sea that are kind of these father-son dynamic stories, these slices of life, I felt like men of color don’t always get that same opportunity. Usually our movies, if it’s a father-son story, it’s about the father not being there. As opposed to, it’s just a story. I love movies like that and I don’t really see those movies for us. That’s sort of where it stems from. I grew up in a family-run business, just like the character in the movie, and I didn’t want to go down their road and it caused a little bit of tension when I was growing up. That’s sort of the germ of where it all started.

So were you into wine or…

No, I was not into wine.

So going into entertainment was like your wine.

Right, I was not into wine at all. I knew I had this world where I wanted the father to eventually want to hand over a business and somehow the idea of a restaurant obviously became more interesting, more visual. I had friends of mine that grew up in families who ran restaurants and it’s like usually everybody in the family does the restaurant business because that’s the sole way that the family’s provided for, everybody has to kind of help.

I was not a wine drinker, but I knew I wanted the son (in the movie) to want it. I wanted to be a writer, and I knew I wanted the son to do something that was a little bit more creative, something that would’ve been airy-fairy to the father. I didn’t know what that was at first. Then my cousin was getting married in Paris. I’d never been to Europe and I was like, “Hey, if I’m ever going to like wine, it has to happen on this trip.”

I took like a wine 101, intro to wine class at this wine bar. And the guy just made it super easy for me to understand, demystified what the label meant and all these terms — I just got it. It made it easy and less scary or intimidating. That’s sort of how I was like, “Oh, this is what the son should want to do.”

And at the time I was thinking about how food and wine are natural pairings and also how the father and the son are not. There’s lots of similarities between what the father does and the way he describes barbecue the wood in a similar way that Elijah would describe grapes. You know what I mean? So those kind of naturally fell together.

When you were talking about people of color not getting to tell these kinds of stories, it kind of struck me that going into this movie, you kind of expect it to be about people of color struggling to get into some business they’re not traditionally a part of. But then when I watched the movie, it seemed like it was more specific. It was more about Elijah. Like the bigger stuff is there, but it’s more specific to your protagonist. Was that something that you thought about when you were making it?

100%. It was 100% deliberate. As I was writing this, Obama was president. So the movie was never going to be like, “Oh, you can’t be this.” It’s like, “Well we have a black president. You telling me you can’t be a black sommelier, that’s crazy.” That just seemed antiquated. As if this was like 1980, like maybe. But in like 2015, 2016? That’s crazy that he wouldn’t believe he could do that. And the father is only in his late fifties. He’s not like somebody in their eighties that goes like, “What is this?” You know what I mean? The point isn’t that you can’t do it at this point. It’s that you just don’t commit to stuff. And as a son, that’s a failing for you to become a man.

It was never a comment about race… And that was what’s funny: I did get a lot of notes from certain executives in the beginning about, well it should be this or that, and I was like, that’s the expected version of that movie. That’s the thing that you’re latching into that, but people of color, my black friends who are succeeding in their fields they’re in — I mean, we might complain about the lack of representation or the lack of diversity in our thing, but never in our minds is the idea that we can’t achieve it. I always would get that from white execs because it’s their perception of how we think. But I don’t think, because I’m a black man, I can’t ever achieve these things. I think I can achieve them in spite of that, and in spite of what people will assume.

In researching this movie about wine and getting into that stuff, do you have any favorite wines that you’re into now?

I more have favorite types of wine than specific wines. I love anything that’s big and kind of complicated — I love like big Syrahs and things that are very dry and feel they’re going to kick me in the teeth. There’s a wine called Austin Hope that I really like. Stag’s Leap from Napa is great. But really anything I feel like you can sit down and have a good bottle of wine over and have some good conversations, that’s a good bottle of wine.

Did you watch any movies about wine or wine books or shows when you were researching this?

Yeah, 100%. Obviously I watched the documentary Somme. I watched Sideways. Bottleshock. Like you want to see what’s been done, right? And what can you do differently. Just like if you were writing a horse racing movie or whatever, you’d watch those movies just to see what did they do that works, what we can do that’s different. And the one thing that I was very clear on watching those movies was I thought they photographed wine beautifully. And vineyards that were super beautiful. I just felt like, everybody’s seen a pretty vineyard at this point. I wasn’t going to bring anything to the table shooting a pretty vineyard. My thing was, well, how did we show the point of view of the people that work in the business, right? It’s like if you go to Disneyland, you’re going to have a different picture than if you work at Disneyland. And so for me, I want to show the grittiness and the hardness of a vineyard, less like the golden sunsets.

In the beginning, even to shoot at the vineyard we shot at, that vineyard has a lot of salinity in it because it used to be underwater and there’s a lot of seashells and limestone, and the soil is very rocky. Which I don’t think you typically think about when you think about a vineyard. Like what does that look like? What’s the grittiness? Even the music we use, I was always like, how do we juxtapose the salty and the sweet? The typical thing would be show wine with classical music. And for me, I was like, well we’re in Memphis. There needs to be trap music. That’s what’s in the opening, it’s like Yo Gotti juxtaposed with the vineyard.

I read in another interview about you growing up as an only child. I’m actually an only child myself and growing up it seemed like no one else who was around was an only child. And then I went to grad school for creative writing and it felt like three-quarters of us were only children. Do you think there’s something about being an only child that makes you want to write?

Yeah, I think so. I mean most of my friends had at least one sibling. And like, these days, grandparents are super cool and active. My grandparents were grandparents, the kind that watch the news from three o’clock, four o’clock, five o’clock, six o’clock. There was no, “Let’s go outdoors and do stuff.” They were watching Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy, and watching the news all day. And so yeah, a lot of our time was spent making up stories and either entertaining my friends and trying to tell my friends stories or make-believe because that’s all you had. And obviously I watched a lot of television growing up too. But yeah, you’re just kind of on your own and left to your own devices. I’m sure that heavily informed my career choice, absolutely.

I saw Drew Brees’ name in the credits for this movie, can you explain how that came about?

Yeah, so originally when we got the money, we got it from a company called Argent Pictures. He, Drew Brees, is one of the investors in the company. So it’s like Drew Brees, Derrick Brooks that played for the Tampa Bay Bucs. Michael Finley, who is obviously a basketball player, Tony Parker that plays for the Spurs. They were all part of the investment group that does that. Like they produced Birth of a Nation, the Nate Parker movie. They produce a lot of different movies, obviously. But we just happened to be one of them that they were interested in doing. When we got the movie to Netflix, they stayed on as producers and that’s sort of how that happened. I was looking forward to meeting him, they were all supposed to be at SXSW, and I’m a big Drew Brees fan. I hate that that didn’t happen. But hopefully, I will connect at some point.

Oh yeah, that’s a bummer. Would it have affected your approach in making this knowing that it was going straight to streaming?

No, never. That never factored. Our thing was always like, “How do we make it the best movie we can make it be?” Like our choice to shoot anamorphic was a choice that wasn’t super obvious, you know? But my thing was like, “How do you make this movie have some scope outside of probably just being in Memphis?” At a certain point, we’re going to Paris. At a certain point, the movie does this and like how do you make this movie that on some level is a very small and personal — again, not dissimilar to Good Will Hunting — but that movie has a lot of scope to it based on where you know that character can go, in the world he’s stepping into, that’s a little bit different than the Southeast.

And so for me, that was our thing, right? Like The Farewell and Ladybird and things like that, how do you give a movie like Ladybird, how do you give a movie that is so closely equated with Sacramento some scope? To us it was all about we had to shoot it where every choice is about getting scope, about getting it to feel bigger than what it is. But never once did we ever think like, “Oh, because we’re at Netflix, we’re having to make the movie different.”

‘Uncorked’ begins streaming on Netflix this Friday. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.