Though the world is facing the gloomy likelihood of peak oil, we can take some comfort in knowing that the second most-traded legal commodity, coffee, is in no danger of drying up.
The 174-minute documentary Black Coffee (2005) is written and directed by Irene Angelico, whose previous work includes the documentary The Cola Conquest (1998) about the marketing of fizzy drinks.
Black Coffee was made in cooperation with Canadian broadcaster TVOntario and is consequently divided into three TV-friendly, 58-minute episodes. Episode one recounts the origin and spread of coffee around the world and its role in promoting liberty and creativity among first-world consumers but slavery and deprivation among third-world pickers. Episode two addresses the rise of coffee as a mass-produced, low-quality consumer good. While episode three explores alternatives to the historical boom-bust cycle of coffee production that has led to grinding poverty for coffee pickers, low-quality coffee for consumers, and significant environmental degradation.
A high-quantity, low-quality coffee plantation yields this:
A better brew: Fair Trade, organic, shade grown, bird friendly
Black Coffee is narration heavy. Written by Irene Angelico and Harold Crooks (The Corporation), and voiced by Helen King, the narration bridges talking heads and plays over archival material or the exquisite footage of contemporary coffee production and consumption around the world shot by directors of photography Marc Gadoury and German Gutierrez. The talking heads include authors, academics, and people within, or peripheral to the coffee industry, including itinerate pickers, peasant growers, plantation owners, brokers, commercial buyers, coffeehouse owners, baristas, consumers, trade officials, and activists.
Complementing the beautiful cinematography is a top-notch soundtrack and score. The score composed by Canadian musician Freeworm (a.k.a. Vincent Letellier) demonstrates a pleasingly eclectic mix of world music influences, but it's the terrific soundtrack that really impresses with a wide range of coffee-centric American tunes and world music. I most appreciated the inclusion of my favorite coffee tunes, the classic Java Jive and Bob Dylan's One More Cup of Coffee.
The widescreen (1.78:1) image is letterboxed. The image is generally sharp and detailed, while colors are generally good though not entirely consistent from scene to scene. Archival materials are of varying qualities and have been cropped to be visually consistent with the widescreen material.
The 2.0 DD audio is lively. Dialogue is easy to understand and the score and soundtrack make good use of the separation between speakers.
Non-English dialogue is accompanied by forced English subtitles. No other subtitle options are provided.
There are no extras on this release.
At nearly three hours in length, Black Coffee is a long but engaging look at coffee production and consumption, past and present, flavored with a deftly-delivered activist prescription for a triple win for growers, consumers, and the environment. Black Coffee covers some of the same ground as Su Friedrich's From the Ground Up and Nick and Marc Francis' Black Gold, but its more comprehensive approach complements rather than repeats these more narrowly-focused films.
Black Coffee is recommended for fans of politically-progressive documentaries, and for coffee junkies. Of course this means it's highly recommended for politically-progressive coffee junkies who love documentaries.