Prentice Penny has spent the majority of his career in TV, producing, writing, and directing such hits as Scrubs, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and Insecure.
As notable as those credits are, Penny’s work has so far been within the limits of someone else’s idea. So when it came to branching out into film with his directorial debut—Uncorked, which premieres on Netflix on March 27— Penny says that he’s been careful in setting the right tone.
“I was getting offered for a lot of reboots and remakes and sequels of things, but I would just be rewriting somebody else’s voice,” he says. “And I was afraid that I would never find mine as a result.”
As it turned out, the voice and story Penny developed for his feature film debut is about as mundane as it gets—but in the best way possible.
Uncorked stars Mamoudou Athie as Elijah, a young man with an intense passion for wine. His dream of becoming a master sommelier, however, runs counter to the plans that his dad, Louis (Courtney B. Vance), had for Elijah taking over the family barbecue restaurant business. It’s a story about doing what you love versus doing what’s expected of you, which Penny drew inspiration from with his own story of wanting to be a writer instead of going into his family’s furniture business.
On top of that, Penny was interested in unpacking his own perspective of his father.
“When I became a father, it made me examine the relationship with my father a little bit more,” he says. “I started to see him as just a guy trying to figure it out as opposed to like, my ‘father.’ And that made me understand him better.”
At the root of Uncorked is a classic father-son story that feels somewhat extraordinary because it’s a black film that’s not using stereotypical circumstances to propel the narrative. Elijah isn’t dealing with a single mother or an absentee father, as is the backdrop for many black films. Penny was intentional in showing everyday family dynamics without them being mired in black trauma.
“I feel like white men get a chance to have these father-son dynamic movies where they get to be regular,” Penny says. “A lot of our movies about black fatherhood are always about the father being absent—and that just wasn’t my life.”
Penny extended his desire for normalcy in the film’s locations throughout Memphis, as well as the muted color palette.
“One of the things I would tell every department, no matter if it was the production designer, wardrobe, or whatever: This a story that would just happen on any Tuesday,” Penny says. “What is our life like on a regular day when nothing exceptional is happening?”
Even when Elijah visits a vineyard in France, there’s no sweeping shot of sun-drenched fields or clinking glasses. Everything is steeped in utilitarian practicality.
“I wanted to shoot the vineyard in a much different way than I feel a lot of people Instagram vineyards,” Penny says. “We’re talking about the workers—the people who have to pick the grapes. Their view of a vineyard is it’s massive. It’s laborious. So it’s not showing beautiful sunsets. We took a lot of the color and pop out of it and leaned more into the natural look of the world.”
Despite Penny’s unwavering devotion to all things regular, Uncorked is far from boring. Its charm is in how regular it feels. There are no grand pronouncements of the plight of black folks or screwball high jinks—it’s just a slice of life with relatable characters.
“It’s not about them being magical and exceptional,” Penny says. “This is a Tuesday in their lives, and that’s where we’re picking them up.”