Life is a Mays
We All Are Looking to Find Our Own Thing and "Uncorked" did exactly that.
Disclaimer: Minor Spoilers
At the age of 23, I probably have an existential crisis daily about the validity of my dreams and whether my self-defined purpose is enough to not only take care of myself, but also my family. And I know that I’m not alone. Often, I label my dreams as unconventional, and sometimes even unattainable, but progressively I challenge myself to explore the unknown of an industry that I have such an innate passion for. This is why the film Uncorked (2020) is not only timely for all of the compulsive twenty-somethings that hold on to our dreams closely, but it showcases a narrative that represents the conflicting responsibility of navigating two worlds, both of which equally make you who you are.
Uncorked was originally slated to have its world premiere at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival but was canceled due to the rona. It officially debuted on Netflix on March 27th, 2020. As the feature-film directorial debut for Prentice Penny, this film was not only a novice endeavor, but also a crossover test from Penny’s vast experience in television (Insecure, Girlfriends, Happy Endings, etc.) to film production. It is often rumored in the industry that it is impossible to crossover to film production from television production and vice-versa (which has been proven time and time again to be false), but Penny was able to seamlessly blur that limiting line. He provided us with a traditionally structured film with the tone of a television drama reminiscent of, This Is Us (NBC) & A Million Little Things (ABC).
The story follows Elijah, played by Mamoudou Athie. Elijah is a passionate wine enthusiast who has goals of becoming a master sommelier. The conflict of the film lies in the complicated relationship with his father, Louis, played by Courtney B. Vance. Louis expects for Elijah to take over their family BBQ joint in Memphis, Tennessee that his father gave him. Elijah’s mother, Sylvia, played by Niecy Nash, serves as the link between the bottled up father and son. Tanya, Elijah’s girlfriend played by Sasha Compère rounds out the main cast, presenting an interesting duality between the two couples. It is clear that the film centers around the dynamic between the father and son and these narratives are not necessarily new to Black film. So the question lies, where does this film fit in the ethos of father and son narratives. Does it succumb to recycled tropes or does it present a fresh new reality of the father and son drama?
In the case of this film, it presents a new reality. One not steeped in the traumatic relationships of authority and dangerous rebellion we receive from earlier representations, especially as we consider 90s LA/Hip-Hop cinema. The family is textured, with all of the elements that made us fall in love with Black family films in the early 2000s like Soul Food (aside from the affairs and family drama). For 2020, so far, it’s one of my favorite Black films. It separates itself from the racialized melodramas (The Banker & Just Mercy) and the stylized love stories (Premature & The Photograph) of the year and cements itself as rewrite of the Black familial drama. One that expands the visions we hold for ourselves. Mind you, there is space for all of these films. I can admit though, all of the 2020 releases for Black films have felt a bit contrived, but the risks they are taking within them save them.
Overall, I enjoyed the film. With a traditional film structure, it still felt fresh and that is partly due to the freshness of the concept of a Black sommelier. The mixing of the two worlds of BBQ and wine was a blend I didn’t know I needed till it happened. It got me wanting to speak more openly about my love for whiskey, like Elijah’s love for wine (Jack Daniel’s, it’s time to sponsor your boy).
The visuals felt like a love letter to Memphis represented through still shots of various staples around the city. This approach to visual style paired well with the music by Hit-Boy, who did exactly what he needed to do. It’s becoming a trend in films, especially in current Black films, that they become elongated music videos, with minimal dialogue. That was one frustrating aspect of Queen & Slim, but oddly, I believe it works for Uncorked. I did realize though that a lot of the daring cinematography and shot choices did not come until Elijah was in Paris, I don’t know if that was intentional, but it would have been nice to witness it consistently throughout.
Of course, it does not go without critique though. I don’t know where to place it, but the pacing felt a bit choppy and rushed in the second act. We spent a lot of time on exposition and not enough time unraveling Louis, like we unraveled Elijah. Thematically, this reminds me a lot of Fences (2016). A father interested in re-directing (and in the case of Fences, crushing) their son’s dreams from either their failed attempts of their own dreams or passing on the responsibility of legacy placed upon them by their fathers. Uncorked fits this formula, but I do wish we explored more of Louis and his upbringing that keeps him bottled up in that manner. It is clear that Elijah would be bottled up and reserved because that was his father was, but how did his father become this way? Like in Fences, it was Troy’s wife and her unhappiness, both of his son’s rebellion, his younger brother’s mental illness and the abusive past he endured that added into his ethos and allowed the audience to emphasize (but not necessarily agree) with his methods. In the case of Uncorked, I found myself frustrated with the father way more than I assume was intended. His stoic manner is rooted in something deeper that we don’t really explore until the third act, which in this case is a bit too late for an audience to care.
Nonetheless, I definitely would recommend. It is a great film! I’m interested in watching Penny grow in this filmic landscape. He obviously has the writing chops, but I can’t wait to see his directorial voice blossom.