Black Gold
Mongrel Media // Unrated // $29.99 // January 9, 2007
Review by Phil Bacharach | posted February 3, 2007
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The Movie:

If a double-tall mocha latte doesn't supply enough a jolt to your senses, leave it to Black Gold to awaken whatever moral indignation might be lying dormant inside. A sobering look at the $80 billion-a-year coffee business, this compact documentary examines an ugly and rarely seen side of the international coffee trade.

The film's title is fitting. Coffee is second only to oil as the world's most exported commodity. But while oil has brought untold riches to some nations that export it, the farmers who cultivate first-rate coffee beans end up reaping, well, figurative beans for all their toil.

At least that's the experience in Ethiopia -- the birthplace of the coffee bean -- as is pointed out by Black Gold's filmmakers, British brothers Marc and Nick Francis. The economy of Ethiopia is inexorably tied to coffee. Nearly 70 percent of its export revenues come from the stuff, with its industry accounting for millions of jobs in that country. But the coffee farmers of this impoverished African nation are grossly underpaid for their labors.

After the 1989 collapse of the International Coffee Agreement spurred rampant deregulation, an Ethiopian coffee farmer typically receives about 23 cents per kilo of coffee (about a dime a pound) for what translates to some 80 cups of joe in the high-priced coffeehouses of New York and Antwerp. The film provides a window into the dire circumstances of Ethiopian farmers. Amid their misery, increasing numbers of them are cultivating an illegal narcotic leaf called known as "chat." As one beleaguered farmer notes, "It's out of desperation -- we want to avoid death."

But all is not hopeless. Black Gold gives us Tadesse Meskala, the tireless head of the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union. Meskala travels the globe seeking a fair and livable price for the more than 74,000 coffee farmers who comprise the co-op. Success does not come easy. Four multinational corporations control the global coffee trade.

Black Gold is an eye-opener, but not always as enlightening as it could be. The filmmakers stack the deck a bit by interposing Meskela's crusade with java-related frivolity. We visit a world barista championship and later hear from some overly enthusiastic Starbucks employees ("We're in the people business!") at the company's original store at Seattle's Pike's Place Market.

The juxtaposition supplies easy irony, but its ridicule of baristas and Starbucks workers strikes this reviewer as the proverbial shooting of fish in a barrel. Surely, they are not the ones responsible for the tragedy unfolding in Ethiopia.

Black Gold fares much better when it takes on the World Trade Organization at its annual meeting in Mexico. African delegates are effectively shut out of trade negotiations, reduced to squatters fighting to get into meeting rooms. Talks eventually collapse by Day 5, leading U.S. trade representative Robert Zoelick to sniff, "There were can-do countries here, and there were won't-do markets." You might just find yourself gagging on that biscotti.

The DVD

The Video:

The DVD has decent picture quality, with the only quibble being an occasional graininess and soft imagery. Presented in 1.78:1 widescreen.

The Audio:

The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track is surprisingly impressive, getting a big boost from a rich musical score by Andreas Kapsalis.

Extras:

None. Nada. Zilch.

Final Thoughts:

Speaking as a diehard coffee addict, I was startled by the revelations of Black Gold. From here on out, it's free-trade coffee for this java junkie.



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