BLACK GOLD (Nick and Marc Francis, 2006)

There are well-off people in the world and impoverished ones, and Black Gold, a British documentary by brothers Nick and Marc Francis, draws a line of causality between the two. Observing various facets of coffee production and global trade, it presents a portrait that’s bitter to the taste: Ethiopian coffee farmers make next to nothing for their hard labor, while corporations (like Illy and Starbucks) make a fortune, the result of artificial price setting in Western financial markets, with consumers none the wiser that they are participating in this unconscionable theft. It is presumably the film’s aim to make the latter— us—wiser on this score.
     But I am giving a wrong impression of the form and structure of this film. “[A] line of casusality” implies a connection of dots. However, Black Gold is more like a mosaic, with all sorts of relevant bits and pieces—individual, communal, economic, political, corporate—sparkling about. We see the deleterious results in Africa of western commodities trading, the West’s pursuit of unfair “fair trade,” and (for the poor) the unhelpful policies of “helpful” groups such as the World Trade Organization. The sarcastic tone that the Francis brothers apply to an interview with Tadesse Meskela, who represents the Oromia Coffee Farmers Co-operative Union and is therefore presumably on the side of the angels, includes inserted reaction shots of Meskela’s wife, who is smarmily aglow at her spouse’s seeming righteousness, making one suspicious even of his motives. In desperation, some farmers opt for growing what will be for them a more (modestly) lucrative crop—but one in far, far less demand than coffee, which occupies a ritualistic throne at breakfast tables and in workplaces around the globe.
     Ridiculing a perky, naive low-wage Starbucks employee, though, is a low blow.


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