The "Black Gold" that makes the world go round

Dec. 17, 2006, midnight | By Amanda Pollak | 13 years, 1 month ago

The politics of Starbucks

As you sip your next latte, savoring its rich bitterness and creamy texture, think of the workers of the Oromia Coffee Farmers Co-operative Union, who toil away, malnourished, often for 50 cents a day, to make your caffeine surge possible. Or at least that's what "Black Gold," a new documentary by Nick and Mark Francis, would like. Though it may not get in the way of the global empire that is today's modern coffee giants, it serves as a poignant reminder that everything good comes at a cost — which in this case are the millions of people of the third world who remain dependent on the trade.

"Black Gold" flawlessly weaves together vignettes and footage of all elements of the coffee world, from the Italian coffee entrepreneur, to the coffee fairs and World Barista Championships. Beans are processed, bagged, roasted and unpacked as Wall Street junkies monitor the trade on three computers and the workers of Oromia Coffee Farmers Co-operative Union toil away in poverty.

They are only a drop of the human cost of this global industry. Theirs is an economy devastated by the drop in coffee prices. They are workers switching from growing coffee to growing chat (the first choice narcotic used and abused by Liberian child soldiers) and many starving and education-deprived children.

The film had the potential to be dry. If anything, it is the brilliant juxtaposition of impoverished Ethiopian farmers and the latte-sipping culture of the Western world that saves it from this documentary-typical fate, helped by interspersed statistics standing between scenes.

Making these transitions both flawless and compelling is Tadesse Meskela, General Manager of the Oroma Co-op, and ruthless crusader for the rights of his workers. Fluent in both English and Ethiopian, Meskela inspires his workers in a rousing speech reminiscent of the unionizing movement of the early 1900's, only to turn to the camera and explain flawlessly and simply the unfairness brought on by free trade.

In perhaps the most brilliant transition of the movie, a peppy manager of the world's first Starbucks, with a genuine voice, describes her work as "very special. It's amazing the people we're touching," she says, as the camera switches to a feeding center in the region of Ethiopia responsible for Starbucks' coffee. A toddler, says a feeding center administrator, is "well-nourished — or, she's only moderately malnourished." The mother picks up the sobbing toddler and her belongings, placing the girl in a makeshift backpack, and heads home with her husband. Oh, for the people whose lives the Starbucks manager touches.

Simple, elegant and theme-appropriate cinematography and music underlie the movie well. Vivid landscapes of poverty speak for themselves, as do the plain, brief shots of westerners sipping their custom-made, flavored black gold. The music, a hybrid of western and African, just like coffee, conveys the mood of each scene, speeding up and becoming repetitive to convey busyness while reaching a mourning trill in the closing sequence.

The movie is a somber ode to a global tradition. The consumer will always seek the better price. The corporation will always do everything in their power to provide it. And many, in this case the impoverished country of Ethiopia, will always be left behind. And of course, says an Italian barista, people will always love coffee. "Without it," he says, "we're all miserable." Unfortunately, as "Black Gold" points out, he and the rest of the Western world fail to acknowledge the many people miserable because of it.

"Black Gold" (118 minutes) is unrated and is playing at Landmark's E Street Theatre.

Amanda Pollak. More »

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