Black Gold [2006 documentary] Review

Genre: Documentary

Year Released: 2006
Distributor: California Newsreel
Origin: England/Ethiopia
Running Time: 78 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: 13+
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: Bananas!*, Mickey Mouse Goes to Haiti, Fresh, The Corporation, Food Inc., The Dark Side of Chocolate, Our Daily Bread
Notes: N/A

Fun Facts:
-It’s the first documentary to receive funding from the BritDoc organization.

-Black Gold raised awareness about fair trade issues, and people donated $25k shortly after its world premiere. That money was able to fix the Ethiopian school featured in the movie.

-Co-director Marc J. Francis was a producer for the documentary Walk With Me which is a documentary that has Benedict Cumberbatch narrating it. One can say that he’s got support from Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Strange, and Smaug. Take your pick.

-The Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union has represented 240 coffee co-ops with a total membership exceeding a quarter of a million, and they have sales exceeding $40 million. That money has helped sustainability in the coffee-growing communities, medical facilities, and schools in these communities.

Some of my reviews have involved me rediscovering movies that I’ve seen a long time ago to see if they held up. I do have a history with this little British/Ethiopian documentary. I remember watching it at a fair trade coffee shop near where I used to live over a decade ago. There was a little premiere where people from the community would check out Black Gold while fair trade coffee was served. I was a teenager at the time of its release and I wasn’t too familiar with how fair trade elements worked in the context of the global economy. I remember knowing more about that issue back then, but how does Black Gold hold up in 2017?

Black Gold is a documentary about the coffee industry. Not so much about the typical companies in America and Europe, but rather the coffee plantation workers and some co-ops. The film focuses on an Ethiopian man named Tadesse Meskela. He’s the general manager of the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union which is a union that grows high-quality coffee beans that are sold to fair trade companies that export their crops. Tadesse visits various parts of his home country to help not just the local coffee industries, but also to improve the living conditions of the communities represented in the co-op. He also visits the United Kingdom and America to put the products out there while raising awareness of having ethically grown, produced and exported coffee. In addition to Tadesse’s business dealings, there are scenes with other companies in that field, baristas, and various farmers in Africa.

Revisiting Black Gold gave me a different experience in watching it this time around. As an adult, I felt that I’ve become more aware of certain issues and the ramifications of different events with how they affect others or even everyone. Back then, I wasn’t fully aware of everything going on at that time. This wasn’t the case here. I could see that Tadesse was passionate about the Oromia co-op he founded. He can be strict with the quality of the beans, but it shows he cares about having premium products since it can help the farmers get more capital for their crops while becoming more self-sustaining. Some of the things I got back then such as Ethiopia’s rampant poverty, but what I didn’t notice this time around were the 2003 World Trade Organization (WTO) talks in 2003. You have an outnumbered amount of African delegates who are trying to make sure their respective countries get a fair shake at trade relations and economic opportunities. To paraphrase the Chadian representative: “Trade is better than aid.” Those were some powerful words. It reveals how people in impoverished nations can’t rely on foreign aid forever and they legitimately want to become empowered in the world market without asking for handouts. Regardless of your political ideologies, that is a very defensible argument. Sure there are situations that these nations were thrust into (I’ll spare you the details why), but they want to be self-sustaining, yet still viable partners in the world marketplace.

The production is gritty but is highly effective. Black Gold had a modest budget, but they make each shot count. Whether it’s the rugged streets of Addis Ababa or the pristine inner workings of the Illy headquarters in Trieste, Italy, the cinematography was well done. I thought the scenes with Illy, New York City, and the Pike Place Starbucks store (the first Starbucks ever built, for the record) served as great contrasts to the scenes in Ethiopia and Djibouti to show the opulence of the West compared to the destitution of these African nations. I did get a little plussed with some aliasing issues and some minor coding shortcomings, but it didn’t hinder my interest in re-watching Black Gold.

Black Gold isn’t a lighthearted documentary by any stretch of the imagination. Anyone with a shred of decency will think about where they get their precious bean juice from once they see some of the faces of the coffee farmers who’ve been screwed over by major corporations. Early on in the film when Tadesse visits one of the coffee plantations, he asks the employees how much people in America and Europe pay for coffee in different amounts such as one cup to a few kilos. They guess some very low numbers (roughly a few cents) until Tadesse tells them that they pay a few dollars for a cup of what they’re growing. That scene reminded me of Mickey Mouse Goes to Haiti when the sweatshop workers freak out when they find out how much Americans pay for the merchandise they make. Somewhat unlike that scene, there’s a quiet outrage as each of them talks about how certain CEOs swindle them and how they’re fat while several people in their home country are starving. The soberest moment which I still remember during my initial viewing of Black Gold during my teen years was the scene where a large family of coffee farmers destroys their crops due to a lack of funds. What’s their response? They decide to get more money to support their family by growing chat. For those of you who don’t know what it is, no, it has nothing to do with having small talk with a friend. Chat (rhymes with “cot”) is a plant that contains various narcotic and amphetamine compounds. It is VERY illegal in America and several European countries. Chat growers get way more money for their crops and it grows faster than coffee plants. To put it bluntly, they turn their coffee plantations into glorified trap houses just to get money for food, water, and education. Look, I’m not perfect. Not every latte I bought was fair trade, so I felt that I was part of the problem despite being thousands of miles away. I’m not going to judge anyone for their purchasing choices since I’m still working on being a more conscious consumer when it comes to food and clothing. Sure, I’m good at researching film/media companies and buying independent films, but I need to improve on things I’m going to need more often.

This documentary has a few issues besides the occasional aliasing in the DVD encoding. One big problem I had was some of the Ethiopia scenes. I knew showing some of the impoverished elements in Addis Ababa, Yirgacheffe, and Oromia were going to be unavoidable, but it got too much. There’s a scene where they’re in a part of Ethiopia where they sub-contract their yield to Starbucks. There’s a ramshackle emergency clinic where dozens of people are waiting, and it felt more like a UNICEF commercial than a documentary even complete with flies getting on some of the kids (yes, I reused that Trevor Noah joke from my Theeb review, but it was needed here). The film as a whole doesn’t sink to “poverty porn” levels, but when it does, it just feels like overkill. It all depends on how it’s framed. I can understand it being justifiable to a point in movies like Dreams of Dust or Before Your Eyes, but they made it work much better than here and those were fictional stories.

Black Gold is a good documentary that will make you think twice about the lattes and macchiatos you consume. It does a great job showing why fair trade is a viable option without getting too preachy on it. Putting a face on the farmers and exporters really helped. I also liked how the workers want sustainability instead of a handout that they’ve been forced to get from foreign countries after their nations were wrecked. I also thought the music worked with a mix of ambient instrumentation and authentic East African folk music. Black Gold does have issues with resorting to the poverty porn well in some of the Ethiopian scenes which rubbed me the wrong way. It’s an eye-opening documentary and worth your time nonetheless.

Adjustable Point System:

Add 1 point if you like docs about human rights issues
Add 1 point if you enjoy stories about community empowerment
Subtract 3 points if you can’t stand seeing poverty in film
Subtract 7 points if you’re Starbucks, Sara Lee, Proctor & Gamble, Kraft, or Nestle (All of them declined to be interviewed in Black Gold)

-Tadesse Meskela and his efforts with the Oromia co-op
-Rugged cinematography that adds to the film’s atmosphere
-Well-researched issues on the coffee industry and the farmers

-Aliasing and coding issues in the visuals
-Some poverty scenes go overboard
-Lack of storytelling in the Pike Place scene

Final Score: 8/10 points

Content Warning: This would be for teens and up. The biggest concern would be the scenes where some farmers are growing chat. Some of the townsfolk even sell and chew that stuff. Allow me to emphasize that this is an illegal narco plant. The issues are very heavy, so please watch this with an open mind.

-Curtis Monroe

Photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws.

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