Review: ‘Uncorked,’ starring Mamoudou Athie, Courtney B. Vance and Niecy Nash

March 27, 2020

by Carla Hay

Mamoudou Athie in “Uncorked” (Photo by Nina Robinson/Netflix)

“Uncorked”

Directed by Prentice Penny

Culture Representation: Taking place in Memphis and Paris, the comedy-inflected drama “Uncorked” has a diverse cast of African Americans and white characters representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: An African American man in his 20s is torn between wanting to become a master sommelier and his father’s wishes for him to take over the family’s barbecue restaurant business.

Culture Audience: “Uncorked” will appeal mostly to people who want to see a relatable drama about family relationships, as well as what it’s like to try to break into the competitive and elite world of master sommeliers.

Mamoudou Athie and Courtney B. Vance in “Uncorked” (Photo by Nina Robinson/Netflix)

“Uncorked” takes an authentic and sometimes humorous look at the journey a young man goes through in pursuing his dream to become a master sommelier, even though it conflicts with family obligations. In telling this unique story for the screen, writer/director Prentice Penny just happened to make the protagonist an African American. However, “Uncorked” doesn’t take the cliché route of making the movie about racism or about an underprivileged person of color who gets help from a “white savior.” Instead, the movie touches on universal themes of family tensions and self-doubt through the lens of African American middle-class culture.

The two conflicting worlds of central character Elijah (played by Mamoudou Athie) are made abundantly clear in the opening credits, which alternate between montages of people making barbecue and people making wine. Elijah, who appears to be in his mid-to-late-20s, is holding down two jobs in his hometown of Memphis: He’s a sales clerk at a wine shop and a cook in his father’s casual barbecue restaurant. He’s a lot more passionate about his wine job, and he only works at his father’s place because he feels obligated to do it.

Elijah’s father Louis (played by Courtney B. Vance) inherited the barbecue place from his own father, and Louis expects to Elijah (his only son) to take over the restaurant someday. It’s truly a family business because Elijah’s mother Sylvia (played by Niecy Nash) also works there, as a waitress. Louis also has plans to open a second, more upscale barbecue restaurant in a “gentrified” neighborhood. Elijah’s close-knit family includes Elijah’s cousins, Elijah’s older sister Brenda (played by Kelly Jenrette), Brenda’s husband and their three kids,

However, Elijah’s passion is really for the wine business. It’s evident in how he lights up when talking about wine and recommending selections to customers at the wine shop. One customer in particular sparks more than just an interest in recommending wine. He meets a young woman named Tanya (played by Sasha Compère) when she comes into the store with a friend to get a bottle of wine for a party.

Tanya doesn’t know much about wine, but Elijah puts her at ease by asking her if she likes hip-hop. She says yes. In helping her make her choice, he explains that chardonnay is like the Jay-Z of wine, pino grigio is like the Kanye West of wine and riesling is like the Drake of wine. (She ends up getting riesling wine.)

It’s no surprise that Tanya comes back to the store on another day and takes Elijah’s suggestion to join the store’s wine club, which is how she gives Elijah her contact information. They begin dating each other soon afterward. (Their first date is at a roller-skating rink.)

Tanya encourages Elijah to pursue his dream to become a master sommelier—a title that, as of this writing, only 269 people in the world have ever held, according to the Court of Master Sommeliers. Elijah’s boss at the wine store, Raylan Jackson (played by Matthew Glave), also encourages Elijah and says he will put in a recommendation for Elijah if he ever wants to go to sommelier school. Raylan is a master sommelier, and Elijah looks wistfully at the sommelier diploma that Raylan has.

Meanwhile, there’s increasing tension between Elijah and his father Louis. When Louis tries to get Elijah to do things that will prepare Elijah to take over the barbecue business, Elijah makes excuses by saying he has other plans, usually related to his wine job. Over a large family dinner, Elijah mentions that he’s thinking about going to sommelier school. Louis then makes a snide comment to Elijah by expressing doubt that Elijah will follow through on that goal. He reminds Elijah that he’s had other career goals (including being a DJ) that Elijah eventually abandoned.

Elijah’s mother Sylvia, who’s completely supportive of Elijah, later scolds Louis in private for embarrassing Elijah in front of the family. The back-and-forth banter and conversations between Louis and Sylvia are some of the funniest parts of the movie. Their dialogue rings true for a longtime married couple.

What also rings true is the way that the movie shows that when it comes to pursuing a dream, sometimes people can get in their own way, through self-doubt and making excuses. Tanya essentially tells Elijah that’s what he’ll be doing if he doesn’t take a chance and apply to sommelier school. It’s the extra encouragement he needs to take the entrance exam. And he gets into the school—but not without a major sacrifice. The only way he can pay for the tuition is to use all of his savings.

Even though Elijah tells Louis he can still work at the barbecue restaurant while he attends school, both father and son know that Elijah is now on a path that will change their relationship forever. Elijah is a talented student and a quick learner. But it’s one thing to graduate from sommelier school. It’s quite another thing to pass the extremely difficult test to become a master sommelier. (Based on the small percentage of master sommeliers in the world, most people who take the test don’t pass.)

While attending sommelier school, Elijah meets the three other people who end up in his study group: neurotic and obnoxious Richie (played by Gil Ozeri); cocky and intelligent Eric (played by Matt McGorry), who’s nicknamed Harvard because he went to Harvard University; and sensible and sarcastic Leann (played by Meera Rohit Kumbhani). Another challenge comes when Elijah’s sommelier class goes on a trip to Paris that he can’t really afford. 

Will Elijah get to go to Paris? Will he pass the master sommelier test? And how is his relationship with his father affected by these sommelier ambitions? Those questions are answered in the movie, which has a few twists and turns along the way.

“Uncorked” is the first feature film by writer/director Penny, who’s a former writer/director for the HBO comedy series “Insecure,” starring Issa Rae. The movie is an admirable debut that shows Penny has a knack for entertaining writing and making the right choices in editing and casting. (All the actors adeptly handle the movies comedic elements as well as the overall drama.)

To its great credit, “Uncorked” doesn’t get bogged down in stereotypical tropes of an African American trying to break into a predominantly white industry. There are no racist villains in the story, nor does Elijah have a negative attitude about the extremely small percentage of African Americans who end up being sommeliers. However, “Uncorked” doesn’t water down the African American culture that’s shown in the movie. (The soundtrack is hip-hop and there’s plenty of realistic dialogue in the film.)

As the central character Elijah, Athie carries the movie with a significant deal of charm and empathy. He makes great use of facial expressions to convincingly portray the inner conflicts of someone who wants to please his father and yet be his own man. The father-son relationship is complicated, but there’s also enough respect between the two of them that they don’t deal with conflicts by having obscenity-filled shouting matches, which are over-used negative stereotypes in movies about African American families. “Uncorked” is ultimately about more than just pursuing a dream. It’s also about understanding that in order to stay true to yourself, you have to know you really are in the first place.

Netflix premiered “Uncorked” on March 27, 2020.