Director Prentice Penny and Star Mamoudou Athie on Making ‘Uncorked’ and Finding Your Voice 

Director Prentice Penny and actor Mamoudou Athie sought to tell a relatable but unique story with “Uncorked.” This original Netflix film is a warm drama about chasing one’s vocation in life, even when circumstance and family cast their doubts. “I had come up on television, I had been getting my bones as a writer,” said Penny to Entertainment Voice, “so I was getting offered to write a lot of sequels and remakes to things, and I felt like on TV you’re writing a lot in the showrunner’s voice, not really your own, so I felt like I didn’t know what my voice was yet. I was like, let me write something I know is personal and that I can direct.”

The result is the story of Elijah (Athie) whose family runs a popular Memphis BBQ spot which they expect him to inherit. Yet while working in a wine shop and checking out the local wine scene, Elijah becomes entranced with the fine art of being a master sommelier. When he decides to enroll in school to get proper training, it creates a rift with father Louis (Courtney B. Vance). He gets a little more support from mom Sylvia (Niecy Nash) and girlfriend Tanya (Sasha Compère). Taking a financial risk, Elijah attends classes as the only African American student and hones his skills while proving to everyone that there should be no limit to pursuing one’s natural calling.

In writing “Uncorked,” Penny, who has written for major shows like HBO’s “Insecure” with Issa Rae, took inspiration from a variety of personal experiences. “This was around 2013, 2014, at the same time I had become a father and it made me look at my relationship with my father differently…I wanted to write about that, especially being an African American male I don’t really feel that men of color get to make these same kinds of movies without the father’s absence being at the crux of it. That’s where it sort of came from. My own family had a furniture store kind of similar to the set- up of the BBQ stand, which my father took over after my grandfather had a stroke. I was next in line to take it over and I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to be a writer which was more ‘elevated’ or ‘white collar’ when compared to the blue-collarness of a furniture store that I grew up in. That was the genesis of how it started.”

“I read it and thought it was the beautiful love story of a family,” said Athie of his first reaction to Penny’s script. Athie has played roles ranging from political drama in “The Frontrunner” to upcoming action spectacles like “Jurassic World: Dominion,” but “Uncorked” offered its own unique challenges. “I didn’t know much about BBQ or wine, so that was most of the prep. “I had to get to know about these two things, mostly wine. It was a period of exploration. We worked with professional sommeliers. They gave me a really good basis to understand everything.”

“This was at a time when the only person sort of doing it was Spike Lee. A kid now can say ‘I want to grow up to be like Donald Glover or Issa Rae,’ I can point to all these black creatives and back then there just wasn’t, at least like there is now,” said Penny about the years when he began pursuing his artistic calling. “Even if there were all these great black showrunners in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, you wouldn’t even know about it because you didn’t have the eyes of social media and the kind of attention you have now. It was too esoteric and too ‘over there’ for my father to have any grasp of what that actually meant.” 

For Athie the experience of becoming Elijah has had some beneficial outcomes when it comes to personal pleasures. “Now I can go into a restaurant and know what I want. It’s great! It’s wonderful. I can shop for wine now even if I don’t know all the titles, but I can give an exact flavor profile. That’s thanks to this movie. As far as BBQ I have a newfound appreciation for ribs. I wasn’t a huge ribs guy, but I went down to Memphis and now I can’t wait to get back down there and have some of those ribs.” 

Shooting “Uncorked” was itself a fulfilling and joyful time for the actor. “We had a lot of laughs, a lot of care for each other. I just felt like everyone was taking care of one another. We had a really, really good time. Niecy is such a hilarious person. Courtney B. Vance, who I’ve admired for many years but I always assumed was this really serious guy turned out to be the funniest guy I’ve ever met. I’ve never been distracted so much. Even during those dinner scenes I would laugh so hard, so hard. I would be crying from laughing.”

Penny too found making the film a delight much in part due to the great roster. “It made my job so so easy in so many ways. Everyone came to it very differently. I met Niecy on a short-lived sitcom on Fox, ‘Do Not Disturb,’ she was the only black person in the cast and I was the only black writer in the room, so you fall into each other very quickly and become friends. With Mamoudou I didn’t know who he was, I had seen ‘Patty Cakes,’ and he wasn’t the first person you think about with this part. But the moment I saw him he was doing things that were right on par with the character. I like to see what actors do when they’re not talking, and he was just filling in the space so well.”

“The main message here is go for it,” said Athie. “Commit to your goals and back yourself even if it’s difficult and everyone is against you, it’s possible. As corny as that sounds I think it’s what people need to feel sometimes.”

Penny’s film intentionally conjures a plight understandable to many seeking their own path. “There’s a scene where Elijah mentions wanting to be a sommelier and the family instantly hijacks what that means, that was from my own memories when a conversation with a family goes way left field, you say you want to be writer and then wonder, ‘Why did I bring that shit up?’”

Uncorked” begins streaming March 27 on Netflix.