February 8, 2023


The documentary “Black Gold” tells an unresolved modern version of the age-old David and Goliath story. The giants in this case are multinational corporations that control the worldwide coffee market. The heroic little guy, Tadesse Meskela, represents the Oromia Coffee Farmers Co-op Union, which encompasses 74 co-ops in southern Ethiopia. That country, the birthplace of coffee, produces some of the highest-quality beans in the world.
Mr. Meskela devotes himself tirelessly to traveling the world looking for buyers who will pay a fair price for the beans harvested by the nation’s 70,000 coffee farmers. Instead of wielding a slingshot, he works circuitously by eliminating many of the middlemen who drive up the price of coffee and bypassing commodities exchanges to sell his product directly to buyers. His cause has been embraced by the fair-trade movement, which is working to bring so-called fairly traded commodities like chocolate and bananas, as well as coffee, to increasing numbers of American grocery stores.
Directed by the English documentary filmmakers Nick and Marc Francis, “Black Gold” eventually widens its scope of inquiry to examine the World Trade Organization, which, it claims, prevents the world’s poorer countries from developing export trade, leaving them dependent on emergency relief.
The opening scenes examine the coffee-making process, from the harvesting of beans by Ethiopian workers who earn less than 50 cents a day to the movement of the product through various stages into the retail market.
Along the way the film dishes out facts: coffee is the second most actively traded commodity in the world, after oil; since 1990, retail sales of coffee have increased to $80 billion from $30 billion. Globally, about 2 billion cups of coffee are consumed a day, 400 million of those in the United States. Four multinational corporations dominate the world coffee market, with the international price determined in New York and London.
In Ethiopia 67 percent of the country’s export revenue comes from coffee, and 11 million people count on coffee for their survival.
“Black Gold” adroitly segues between scenes of poor agricultural workers sorting through coffee beans and high-end coffee tasting competitions and exhibitions of brewing machines. A Seattle tour traces the history of Starbucks; during a visit to a Starbucks outlet, a happy employee gushes about being in “the people-touching business.”
At a World Trade Organization convocation in Cancun, Mexico, embittered ministers of trade for developing African nations complain about being excluded from negotiations and flatly reject the agreements imposed on them. Eventually the movie returns to Ethiopia, where it finds a famine is taking hold. Coffee farmers, facing bankruptcy, have begun to replace their coffee fields with chat, a chewable narcotic plant that commands a higher price.
One of the most disquieting (and challenging) statistics is left for last: if Africa’s share of world trade increased by only one percentage point, it would generate $70 billion a year, five times what the continent receives in aid. Who wouldn’t want that?
Opens today in Manhattan.
Produced and directed by Marc Francis and Nick Francis; in English, Oromifa and Amharic, with English subtitles; directors of photography, Messrs. Francis; edited by Hugh Williams; music by Andreas Kapsalis; released by California Newsreel. At Cinema Village, 22 East 12th Street, Greenwich Village. Running time: 78 minutes. This film is not rated.

Black Gold – Movies – Review – New York Times

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