Black Gold Movie Half Baked, But That’s Better Than I Expected

Michael Giberson

A Starbucks sits just around the corner from the E Street Cinema in Washington, D.C. It’s where I headed immediately after watching Black Gold, a documentary on the global coffee business that — if you believe the press clippings and blurbs on the official site — is galvanizing consumers into action and has prompted counterattacks from the corporate coffee world. I ordered my coffee tall, dark-roasted and no-room. My usual.

Black Gold Movie jpeg

Two items suffice to tell you what all the fuss is about. The official website quotes from a Sundance Film Festival notice: “Black Gold is a moving and eye-opening look into the 80-billion-dollar global coffee industry, where the spoils of overpriced lattes and cappuccinos are sparsely shared with the farmers who make it all possible.”

A story published in the International Herald Tribune, linked from the website, cites filmmaker Nick Francis as saying the film, made with his brother, stemmed from the brothers’ outrage about the poverty that persists among Ethiopian growers even as multinational coffee sellers make huge profits.

The film plays this angle heavily – cutting from the cafes of Trieste, where wealthy Italians proclaim the need for the perfect espresso, to the farmers of southern Ethiopia struggling to provide food for their families and maybe send their children to school. We see cheerful baristas at the first Starbucks in Seattle, we see the farmers of the coop gathered to hear that coffee prices are lower this year than last. I saw the contrast, I think I understood what they were trying to say, but I just don’t feel the outrage. The poverty in Ethiopia pre-dated the $4 grandé latte by thousands of years, so I just don’t buy the cause and effect story that the film wants to sell.

But as I say in the title, I found the movie “half baked,” and frankly half way there was better than I expected. In one of those “glass half full” moments of positive energy, I liked it. Read on….

Black Gold shows a lot of the big picture, and only misses out on the relatively complicated job of putting all of the pieces together. The movie wants to hang the hope of Ethiopia’s coffee growers on the notion of a fair price. A laudable concept – the fair price – and one with deep roots in Western civilization. The trouble is that while fairness sometimes succeeds as a debating point, it fails as an economic system. Documentary filmmaking is all about debating points, but I assume the coffee growers are interested in something a little more lasting.

The film takes us to Cancun for WTO trade talks. The episode reveals both some of what I liked about Black Gold and why I find it failed to put all of the pieces together. The trip to Cancun comes late in the film, sort of tagged on, and not really integrated with the rest of the story. At Cancun, surprisingly, the documentary isn’t hanging out with the anti-trade crowds but with Third World journalists and developing country trade advocates. Trade talks fail at Cancun, derailed by U.S. and European defense of domestic agricultural subsidies. We are given some gentle “trade, not aid” advocacy to wrap up the movie.

In this final move the film is only a few steps from delivering the gold that the title promises. It struck me as somewhat ironic that the big stumbling block in this last piece of the movie was the political power of Western agribusiness. While continuing subsidies to the American farmer is made possible by the straightforward exercise of political power in Washington, D.C., the rhetorical foundation of farm aid is our old friend, the idea of a fair price. Hey, just because it doesn’t work as an economic system, doesn’t mean it can’t persist for years as a prop within a political system. And if “our” fair price conflicts with “your” fair price, who is the fairest of the land?

As a rhetorical move, “fair trade” may scrape into the farmers’ pockets a little more of the economic surplus created by the global coffee trade. I still don’t think it is a sustainable approach. The “fair trade” idea strikes me as more aid than trade, depending upon the sympathy of consumers for success rather than superior quality and service.

The filmmakers seem to almost, but not quite, get how this whole thing can work for coffee growers. Specialty coffee growers such as the farmers highlighted in the movie have the potential to succeed on simple superior quality and service. Ethiopia produces coffees of a distinctive flavor and distinguished heritage, and on those grounds may be able to achieve the kinds of prices they say they need. Yes “trade, not aid.” But only if more relatively wealthy consumers can be lured into become exactly the kind of $4 specialty coffee consumers that the movie wants to shame into action.

The filmmakers want to tell a dramatic story of a lonely David battling multinational Goliaths. It is the wrong story, tied up in the old world tales of good and evil, of angels and demons, of allies and enemies. The story here surely is one of rich and poor, but the poor didn’t become poor because of New York coffee traders or multinational coffee chains or World Champion baristas. We need a story that inquires into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations.

We don’t get this story – the filmmakers are only half way there – but like I said, it was better than I expected. Time for another cup o’ joe.

(See also my previous posts: “Fair Trade Coffee, Again,” “Taking Advantage of the Fair Trade Buzz” and “Rewarding Small Producers for Quality Coffee.” My favorite global business documentary remains Power Trip.)