Actor Mamoudou Athie and director Prentice Penny are as obsessed with Tiger King as you.

By Katie Hasty
March 29, 2020 at 03:18 PM EDT
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Not every black story on screen has to be about black trauma. Some are about becoming wine experts.

When Prentice Penny wrote and directed his film Uncorked (out now on Netflix), he wanted to show the "small stories" in black families. The Insecure producer and director's drama follows Elijah (Mamoudou Athie of Patti Cake$), whose prescribed destiny from his dad (Courtney B. Vance) is to take over the family BBQ joint in Memphis, but whose heart is with becoming a sommelier. The hours, schooling, and travel that's required also comes at a cost to Elijah's father and other relationships, but in between the internal scuffles are also floral notes, vanilla, and oak — as described in the gorgeous scene-stealing pours of the good stuff on screen.

Below, Uncorked's heartthrob star Athie and Penny talk about the movie's killer soundtrack, Netflix's disruption to the movie-watching space, and how salty champagne is the sweetest treat.

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ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Where did the script come from where you compare chardonnay to JAY Z, pinot grigio to Kanye West, riesling to Drake?

PRENTICE PENNY: I wasn’t a wine drinker before I wrote this movie. The idea came when I was in Paris for a wedding. I’d never been to Europe. I thought that if I was ever gonna understand wine, it’d be in Paris. So I took a wine 101 class and the guy just broke down what the stuff on the label meant. He made it not intimidating to learn about wine. I needed a scene that made the audience understand wine the way that guy made me understand it. Look, the movie is about people of color, so what artists would go with what wine? And I also needed to write-in artists we knew would still be around — I wrote this script in 2015!

How did you decide what music would go into this film? You have Yo Gotti, Moneybagg Yo, but also Isaac Hayes…

PENNY: The music so important, because we were filming in a really regional city, it has to sound like Memphis. Also, when you typically see a wine movie, you’re gonna [hear] classical music. That’s like syrup on a Pop Tart. I wanted something fresh, interesting, something to cut against it. This is a black man living in this world. When he’s doing it, he’s listening to hip-hop. The salty and the sweet. And there’s the history of Stax Records, Sun Records, in Memphis. And conversely, when Elijah went to Paris, I only wanted French hip-hop playing. Emotionally the character is opening himself up, so that’s what he’s hearing.

What did you want this movie to be and what didn’t  you want it to be?

MAMOUDOU ATHIE: We wanted it to be a positive image of a black family, of having a story without all that trauma and the specter of white supremacy. We have our issues and our own small stories.

PENNY: I’m such a big fan of movies like The Big Sick, Manchester by the Sea, Good Will Hunting, The Farewell. Because those movies are about the human condition and not just about trauma. People have other families issues besides race — it’s not like “You looked at me funny because of slavery.” [Laughs.] It feels like our movies have to be about the worst possible thing to be considered for an Oscar. We just need more movies about us being human. When race is involved, you immediately have to go to caricatures of things. You know the white person is the bad guy! Hidden Figures is a great movie, but you know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. Those stories are important but we’re also nuanced as people.

That’s what I was trying to show, these two black men with their issues. A lot of times with movies about black families, the father isn’t around. That wasn’t my issue in my family. It wasn’t Cortney’s. That wasn’t a lot of my friends’ issues with their fathers. You also never get to see black men's vulnerabilities on screen.

Mamoudou, what were films that inspired you to join the acting world?

ATHIE: Life Is Beautiful left a crazy impression on me as a kid. I remember watching it over and over. I took it to school and lost it! Sorry dad! Gladiator! (Laughs.) I remember wondering where I was in all this. Black actors didn’t have opportunities to play wonderful nuanced characters. They existed but very few and far between. But I will tell you: Do the Right Thing. Oh my god. I remember watching it, I was so bro-o-oke. Broke. Living in Flatbush. It was hot as hell. The fan fell off my bed and the propellers broke. And then I turned on Do the Right Thing. I felt like I was in the movie. I felt like I was Mookie.

Speaking of, Spike Lee’s next movie [Da 5 Bloods] will be on Netflix. How have streamers specifically changed the way you watch movies?

PENNY: This makes me think of how grandfathers talk about how things were back in the day. A lot of people remember a time when Netflix didn’t exist. But a kid today doesn’t know a world without it. For some, a movie is meant to be on screen, you wanna see that on screen as opposed to a phone. But there are stories that don’t have to be that way. Especially in how Marvel and Star Wars and stuff dominate the way theaters program, there’s no room for Love Story or Annie Hall or Dog Day Afternoon or Serpico. I don’t think they’d make The Godfather today.

The way studio system is set up, I think the Netflixes can save mid-level movies that don’t get made a lot for [theatrical release] today. What’s also great is people of color to make movies without worrying about the box office. I remember telling friends about black movies like, “This is like a secret black meeting. Make sure everyone go the first weekend or else they’re gonna pull it from the theater.” That’s a horrible feeling, to feel like races have to galvanize behind an opening weekend. If it doesn’t open well, [studios] won’t make another one for a couple of years because they’d use a weak opening weekend as evidence.

This is opening weekend for your film on Netflix. What should people eat and drink along with watching this?

PENNY: Any food that makes you think “I’m not gonna worry about the calories.” Today’s not the day.

ATHIE: Steak. A nice filet.

PENNY: Fried chicken. Ribs. Greens. Mac ‘n’ cheese. And I love champagne.

ATHIE: You love that salty champagne.

Premiere weekend! Drink all the champagne you want… at home.

PENNY: I don’t have a choice because of the government, ha!

ATHIE: I’m just gonna be Netflix and chillin’.

What movies or TV shows are you binging besides?

ATHIE and PENNY: [Simultaneously] Tiger King.

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