As restaurants across the country teeter on the brink of closure because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Netflix has just released a feature film that centers on one. Uncorked follows Elijah (Mamoudou Athie), a young man in Memphis pursuing his goal of becoming a master sommelier while managing his father’s expectations that he take over the family’s BBQ joint. Make no mistake: A movie about a Black man’s journey into the world of wine isn’t just fresh, it’s urgently needed. Typecasts and stereotypes are costing Black business owners billions of dollars in real life.
We’ve grown accustomed to a destructive narrative about Black communities that assumes their conditions directly result from the behaviors of their residents. While many wax poetic about how special Memphis, New Orleans, Detroit, and other Black-majority places are to the American landscape, the speechifying doesn’t lead to investment and revenue growth for Black neighborhoods — largely because we devalue the Black people in them. Outsiders don’t see the assets or strengths in Black communities because they can’t get past the narrative that Black people are problems needing to be solved.
Many who grew up in Black neighborhoods heard elders use the phrase “our ice is just as cold.” They knew to push against the false, wealth-robbing narrative that goods and services in Black neighborhoods are inferior. But people living outside those communities continue to dismiss them.
Breaking from that tired storyline, Uncorked centers Black family, business, and culture as assets that are worthy of investment. But what makes the movie truly novel is how writer-director Prentice Penny didn’t shy from showing the high value of Black family and businesses. Through numerous scenes tying Elijah’s prep work at the restaurant to his tireless work ethic studying wine, the film makes clear how owning and working in a Black-owned establishment can prepare someone to meet the supposed rigors of a mostly White profession.
Perhaps more importantly, it shows the only thing holding back Black people and firms is a lack of investment.
According to research by the Brookings Institution and Gallup, highly rated businesses in Black-majority neighborhoods receive less revenue than businesses in majority-White neighborhoods largely because consumers bypass quality in those places due to negative perceptions of the Black residents who live there. Last year, these racial attitudes cost business in Black-majority neighborhoods $4 billion in revenue. Instead of avoiding these establishments we should frequent and invest in them.
Many who grew up in historic Black neighborhoods heard elders use the phrase “our ice is just as cold.” They knew to push against the false, wealth-robbing narrative that goods and services in Black neighborhoods are inferior. But people living outside Black communities continue to dismiss, discount, and avoid them. Meanwhile, residents of Black neighborhoods pay a “Black tax” for these negative assumptions in the form of lost revenue and investment. The elders understood that avoidance of Black communities distorts markets in ways that undermine the people living in them — chiefly by eliminating wealth creation.
During a scene in Uncorked — in which Elijah’s father, Lewis (Courtney B. Vance), passes on his own father’s blue suit to Elijah for his sommelier exam — Lewis tells his son, “He bought it when he was going to get a loan to open up the restaurant.”
“It brought him good luck?” Elijah replies.
“Hell no,” Lewis says. “He was a Black man getting a loan in 1960. He was denied by every bank in town. He eventually won it in a dice game.”
While uplifting, Uncorked doesn’t sidestep the challenges facing Black families, including racism. Only 1% of Black business owners were able to obtain loans in their founding year, compared with 7% of White entrepreneurs. In 2018, the Brookings-Gallup research team found that homes of similar quality in neighborhoods with similar social amenities are devalued by 23% (or $24,000) in the Black-majority districts in the Memphis metropolitan area compared to its mostly White vicinities. Most entrepreneurs use equity from their homes to start businesses — and those living in Black neighborhoods have less resources to do so.
Uncorked is a fictional story, but the racism in Memphis that serves as its backdrop is very real. Of metro areas with populations over 1 million, Memphis has not been a top performer on metrics of growth, prosperity, and inclusion in the last decade, according to Brookings’s Metro Monitor 2020. From 2008 to 2018, the whole nation has been steadily recovering from the Great Recession, but Memphis ranks 46th of 53 in growth, 43rd in prosperity, 46th in inclusion, and last in geographic inclusion (meaning that income, employment, and poverty follow spatial patterns in the metro area which exclude certain neighborhoods entirely). Notably, the Memphis area ranks second in racial inclusion due to shrinking gaps in employment rate, poverty rate, and median earnings between White residents and people of color.
However, we know that Black employment and homeownership rates are consistently lower than those of Whites, especially during or following times of economic recession. So it follows that a metro area centered on one of the largest Black-majority cities in the country would have a slower recovery and larger gaps to close on the path toward an equitable regional economy. The Memphis area’s progress on racial inclusion is encouraging — however, prior research using 2017 data shows that the physical assets of Black neighborhoods in Memphis still are not valued at their true worth.
Housing and business devaluation explain why going to sommelier school wiped out Elijah’s savings in Uncorked. It contextualizes why he checked out his textbooks from the library instead of purchasing them and bought his clothing from a consignment shop that a relative owned.
Much is at stake for Black businesses. Our quarantined state can only heighten our appreciation for the restaurant industry. When local businesses hurt, their host communities suffer.
“Do you know how hard your grandfather worked to keep this restaurant in the family?” Lewis asks his son in Uncorked. “Do you know what this restaurant means to the community? This place is historic.”
There’s little room for error for all businesses, but racism removes most of the slack resources that owners use to survive economic crises.
Black people bootstrapping our way to ownership is American as apple pie, but it’s a story that seldom told. Eliminating the “Black tax” demands anti-discrimination policy as well as legislation that restores the wealth that has been extracted by racism. However, Black communities can benefit from a corresponding change of narrative.
Black people, neighborhoods, and businesses are assets that are worthy of investment. Uncorked provides that narrative — a narrative that may be new to some, but is desperately needed by all.