There is a certain irony of the coffee-industry exposé Black Gold. After 78 minutes of coffee fondling, roasting, sniffing, sipping, sorting and gathering, it is virtually impossible to suppress the urge to run out to the nearest mega-coffee corp and do your small part to boost the profits of the West and drive another nail into Africa's coffin.
That intense, obsessive craving for coffee is part of the point in this documentary about the global inequities that coffee culture illustrates. What Black Gold advocates is a more enlightened coffee mentality in which consumers satisfy their coffee jones with fair-trade coffee and better information about the source of their brew.
In this film directed by British brothers Marc and Nick Francis, coffee is a product that illustrates the gross, gaping inequities between rich and poor, powerful and weak, exploiter and exploited. A meager source of income in Africa (where it is harvested and sold for a pittance), coffee has become a source of almost absurd connoisseurship in the West, land of barista championships and row upon row of beautifully packaged coffee bounty in London supermarkets.
The filmmakers don't mince words or aim for subtlety. They cut from chirpy, boosterish Starbucks employees to the hometown of the coffee chain's beans in Ethiopia, where therapeutic tents have been set up to feed the malnourished local children whose families have been devastated by coffee's falling value in the world market.
Unlike the similar documentary Darwin's Nightmare, about the brutal exploitation of Tanzanians to support the European demand for Nile perch, Black Gold is anxious to offer viewers an "out." The film follows the efforts of Tadesse Meskela, a friendly, determined representative of an Ethiopian farmers' co-op who is striving amid fancy trade shows and unbelievable corporate competition to get a fair price for Ethiopian coffee.
Shot in an understated, cool style with little flash or bluster, Black Gold takes some time for its message to build, but when it does the huge global impact of that simple cup of coffee in your hand is undeniable.
Black Gold. 3 stars. Directed by Marc and Nick Francis. Not rated. Opens Fri., Nov. 10. Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.