Earnest coffee expose lacks clarity

By Robert Horton

October 6, 2006

Herald Movie Critic

Yet another thing to be depressed about: coffee. The longtime pick-me-up is just another cog in the dismal machinery of the global economy.

This buzzkill is offered in “Black Gold,” an earnest new documentary that traces the unclean trail of who gets rich on the world’s favorite legal addiction. The emphasis is on coffee from Ethiopia, the source of some of the finest coffee beans in the world.

British filmmaking brothers Marc and Nick Francis focus on a man named Tadesse Meskela, a sales representative who is trying to help the small coffee farmers in Ethiopia band together to get a fairer price for their product.

In order to follow that, “Black Gold” looks at who is profiting and how they are making their profit. The money isn’t going to the Ethiopian coffee farmers, who look extremely surprised when they find out how much is being made at the other end.

The Francis brothers travel to a World Trade Organization meeting, to the floor of a New York commodities exchange, and to the very first Starbucks store in Seattle’s Pike Place Market. Also in Seattle, they drop in on an annual competition to determine the world’s best barista – something that might be fun, but seems rather trivial in these circumstances.

That’s because by this time, the film has also shown how women sitting in a factory in Ethiopia are making about 50 cents a day laboriously hand-picking through coffee beans to weed out the bad ones. That’s how gourmet coffee becomes gourmet.

Any casual java drinker will at least consider turning to “Fair Trade” coffee after seeing this movie. Fair Trade seeks to get a more equitable share of the profits into the hands of farmers and growers rather than the vast web of middlemen and the multinational corporations that generally keep the lion’s share of the dough.

That seems like a valid cause, although it must be said that “Black Gold” does a less than completely coherent job of explaining the system. It would be nice to connect all the dots so that the uninitiated can see the whole picture. Understandably, with 2 billion cups of coffee consumed every day, that’s a big picture.