By Kirstin Cheers
“What if we just sent out all different kinds of Barolos? Is that crazy?”
At that moment – as Elijah unloads on his boss at Joe’s Wine and Liquor about his findings at a recent wine mixer – “Uncorked” becomes bigger than just a story about wine and barbecue.
Elijah, the successor of his grandfather’s and now father’s barbeque joint, just wanted something new and something different than that which he’s already seen and known.
California bred and showrunner of HBO’s “Insecure,” director Prentice Penny crafted Elijah’s story after his own. Penny worked in his family’s furniture business before choosing a career in entertainment like a television writer. In an interview with BlackFilm, Penny addressed the transition from tv to preparing for his first feature-length film:
“One of the things that happen in television is that you’re writing a lot in somebody else’s voice. When I was starting to come up with the idea, I was afraid I wasn’t going to find my own voice…I was thinking that I already write in somebody else’s voice for most of my day, and I need to start finding my own voice as a writer. I felt if I was writing in two different voices, that wasn’t my own, that it would hinder me creatively.”
And that’s how Penny gets the Memphis story right.
Beyond sharing stories of origin, Penny foreshadows Elijah’s underlying struggle: finding his voice.
Elijah (Mamoudou Athie) is a millennial with a dream of becoming a master sommelier, contrary to his father, Louis’s (Courtney B. Vance) hopes of him taking over the family barbecue joint one day. Louis, like the average Black father and uncle, talks out the side of his neck and the corner of his mouth barely above a whisper. He rags on Elijah for unfocused dibbling and dabbling in ventures he can’t finish, a common belief about millennials. He wants to see him commit to the family business as an act of pride and honor for the hard work his father and grandfather endured and own the stage that’s been set for him. But Elijah wants to be the star of his own show.
Elijah moves toward his dream with the support of his mother Sylvia (Niecey Nash) and even studies in Paris as part of his program. It’s not until tragedy and challenges arise that Elijah bears the weight of having to choose between birthright and individuality.
A familiar story, Uncorked leaves room for the unpredictable using popular motifs such as family, community, grit, and grind. It’s a beautiful story of determination, generational conflict and resolve.
And is that not the burden in the rhythm and blues of Beale Street; in the sizzle and crackle of wings as they’re lifted from the fryer; of the thunderous rumble of FedEx planes ascending towards the sky; of the Melrose High and Hamilton High marching bands in the fall?
The refrain from our barbecue to our rap is a song of a city that’s still finding its voice.
It’s nothing to be ashamed about as Sylvia assures Louis that Elijah is just trying to figure out who he wants to be and what he wants to do. Memphis is, too. From millennials starting and investing in businesses to Boomers and Gen Xers sustaining the legacies they’ve built or have carried, Uncorked affirms Memphis should take pride in all she is and all she holds.
The film connects the generational divide from Barbara and The Browns to Yo Gotti, Blac Youngsta and Moneybagg Yo.
It highlights the hilarious truths from juke joints and barbecue hauts filled with smoke and old grease hidden in the corners of the grills and ovens, but still maintains a 98/A from the health department.
It reveals the continuity of our love language from Elijah’s first date at East End Skating Rink with Tanya (Sasha Compere) to Louis and Sylvia’s flirtatious, old-school mockery of, “You feeling funky now?”
The secret to Uncorked’s sauce of why it works so well with Memphis is its achievement in bridging – not just between barbecue and wine – time and space.
The family’s lightning round of questioning if a sommelier is an African or a pirate is a familiar experience of our family dinner table.. Raylan admitting to completing school while raising his son alone with the smell of Merlot on his clothes is our reality. And Elijah having to overcome tragedy and challenges is our grit and grind.
What drives our building, breathing and beauty is our collective sense of dreaming. From Dr. King’s leadership during the sanitation strikes of 1968 to the investments in North Memphis and Frayser, there’s still a fight in Memphis to see her become better and new.
It’s a breath of fresh air from the police chase scenes of First 48, and dank, complex bridges of Hustle and Flow. Uncorked reveals the heart of the city and our families.
It’s like the founders and creatives in Memphis Black Art Alliance, or the underground rappers like Cochi$e; or the actors at Hattiloo, or the event curators like Curtis Givens, or restaurateurs like Elijah Townsend of Sage and Chef Tam. Plus the raw Memphis talent throughout the film from Priceton Echols, Carmen Hicks, Marco Pave and Makeda’s Cookies. There’s a wealth of Memphains who are bridging that gap between what has been and what can be.
And this is the story Memphis deserves.