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Really good art is like a mirror. It allows you or sometimes even forces you to see yourself in people, places and things that often look nothing like you or your circumstances. The problem for me with some art, especially films about black life, is that I sometimes find it difficult to see myself in the mirror of the art about people who look like. That mirror sometimes provides a distorted image that panders to pathology and stereotypes.
Prentice Penny’s Netflix original movie Uncorked is the exception and I must say that the movie is exceptional.
The film centers around a black family who owns and operates a barbecue restaurant in Memphis, TN. The restaurant was handed down and entrusted to Louis, the family patriarch, played by Courtney B. Vance by his father who is now deceased. Louis has high hopes of handing the restaurant down to his son Elijah, played by Mamoudou Athie. Louis’s wife, Sylvia is played by Niecy Nash.
Elijah is a bit of a free spirit who doesn’t want to be saddled with the family business but has difficulty breaking the news to his persistent father. Sylvia finds herself stuck in the middle, sometimes playing the role of mediator for the two men in her life, and other times acting as an advocate for her son. Elijah has had his fair share of interests over the years, none of which have taken root mostly due to his lack of stick-to-it-tiv-ness. However, he seems to have finally found his passion – wine. He wants to be a Master Sommelier.
The difference between a Master Sommelier and a Master Smoker are huge, right?
The choice to pursue his global passion for wine instead of remaining home and staying loyal to the swine are worlds apart, right?
Or are they?
The juxtaposition of wine and barbecue in this film is so apropos.
Each requires a special craftsmanship and care that is centered around local culture. The opening montage of the movie does a beautiful job of making that point by showcasing the craft of each.
Memphis is a city that is very well known for its own distinct style of barbecue. Other cites like Kansas City and states like North Carolina also have a flavor and style all their own. The same is true for wine and winemaking. Different countries like France, Italy and Spain have their own traditions and styles and there are even regions within those countries that have a distinct style or type of wine that is specific to that area.
Louis is shown regularly seeking out and experimenting with specific species of wood to smoke his meats with to give it that special flavor that can only be found at his restaurant. That wood is local and part of the ecosystem that contributes to what makes his brand of Memphis barbecue unique. Louis is desperately trying to pass this knowledge on to Elijah.
Penny brings out something in the film that is at the heart of the human condition. He employs in specialibus generalia quaerimus, a Latin phrase meaning “to seek the general in the specifics”.
He shows that in order to truly self actualize, we must first come to grips with who we are, and part of that struggle is dealing with where we find ourselves. Once we are able to deal with that, then we might just find something about ourselves that is truly special that we can then take to the rest of the world.
Humanity exists in the specifics of our everyday situation. Without saying so out loud, the film drives home the point that the best barbecue and wine in the world both originally emanated from hardworking families who took pride in their craft and wanted to offer it to others. Without giving the subject much thought, one would probably view the crafts hierarchically with barbecuing being at the bottom and winemaking on top. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why someone might come to such a conclusion.
But, if you look at the people and the families and their respective crafts, there’s really no difference at all. When we look into the specifics of a situation and a people, particularly culturally – without the inherent biases of preconceived notions – and see them in their natural environment, it’s not too hard to see yourself in the mirror of that specificity.
Penny, cuts out all of the fat of the stereotypes and preconceived misconceptions about black people from the film and what we are left with is a lean and enjoyable feast. We don’t see a family that happens to be black. No, we see a family that is unapologetically black. A family who is dripping with a southern Memphis style of black culture. But, that culture doesn’t obscure their humanity or get in the way of the ability for others to see themselves in the characters and their circumstances.
One very powerful element of the film is the soundtrack. It’s hip hop. Not just any hip hop, but a very localized version of hip hop. Most of the film takes place in Memphis and while we are immersed in the sights of Memphis we are surrounded by the sounds of Memphis hip hop. The music is raw and deals with some of the stereotypes mentioned above. Penny does an excellent job of having the film walk circumspectly with the music, recognizing that some of those stereotypes and subject matter actually do exist, but just because they are there does not mean that the storyline and the characters have to fully embrace it or even succumb to it.
Elijah travels to Paris to study wine as a part of an exchange program with his school. While he is there, the soundtrack switches. It’s still hip hop but with a distinctly local French flavor.
This made me realize something. Wine is easy to export because you can put it in a bottle and ship it all over the world. Winemaking is very local while wine consumption is global. Barbecue is not easy to export at all. Meat is perishable and it’s not easy to transport once cooked. Barbecuing is very local and so is barbecue consumption.
Hip hop has been bottled and exported all over the globe.
Just like the distinct regions and cities of barbecue and wine, hip hop is also regional – East Coast, West Coast, Dirty South, Atlanta, New Orleans, Trap, Gangsta Rap, etc. – and the humble beginnings of the music has inspired the rest of the world to come up with their own recipes for the music that speaks to their specific cultural circumstances.
Elijah looked outside of himself and the world that he came from and was inspired to try to become a Master Sommelier, but on his journey of self actualization and trying to conquer the world he finds out that there are still many local lessons left to be learned.
As human beings, we need not look outside of ourselves and our circumstances to find the humanity within us and every now and then when we have the opportunity to share a rack or ribs or a bottle of wine with someone who doesn’t look like us, maybe, just maybe, we can see ourselves in each other.
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