Black Gold (2006)
|California Newsreel || UNRATED - 78 minutes || October 6, 2006|
|Reviewer: Andy Hoglund || Posted On: 2006-11-23|
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In Seattle, continents away from Black Gold’s subject—Ethiopian coffee farmers—a Starbucks employee sells the farmer’s labor at an affordable price. She giggles, she chit chats, she basks in the company of her customers, as well as the gentile nature of her benevolent mother corporation. In her brief interview, Black Gold uses this amiable Manager of the Month as a breathtaking contrast to the misery being experienced half a world away.
Sure, she’s pleasant. I certainly won’t hold that against her. Still, she fails to recognize, let alone understand the injustices and egregious infractions that result from the production of those many coffees she oh-so-religiously sips (as evidenced by the compulsive way her body vibrates when she talks). Not that she is guiltier than the rest of the country’s many coffee drinkers. It is here that Black Gold finds success—America drinks coffee. Directors Marc and Nick Francis have crafted a film that quietly, yet directly indicts the American consumer’s participation in human rights violations. While never forcing their politics of action onto the audience, Black Gold suggests our own complacency in grave wrongs through the prevalence of coffee in American life.
Today’s popular documentaries are issue-orientated—they’re heated, they’re topical, they’re debatable both in their potential biases and within the realm of today’s politics. Black Gold has chosen the route of unfair wages within the coffee industry, before later expanding into larger examinations of business and human rights practices. Luckily, though, Black Gold stands out by refusing to wear its politics on its sleeve. It is compassionate toward the farmers without breaking out into full-blown socialist rhetoric. The score by Andreas Kapsalis is moving without ever really becoming overly intrusive. Kapsalis’ music is one of the film’s lone indulgences; it otherwise keeps things stark and plainly edited.
In keeping with their passionate, yet detached style, the directors Francis narrate their film with a series of formal title cards. Their voice remains as remote as the text onscreen, letting the tragedy of the working conditions in Ethiopia speak for itself. According to one of the film’s title cards, Africa’s situation would improve considerably if its world trade increased by one percent. Echoing an interviewed African activist’s statement, this would encourage self-sufficiency within developing countries, reducing the need of aid and charity from the US and elsewhere. It would also defuse our habit of self-aggrandizement, not to mention potentially upset the balance of wealth within the western world. Though deftly extracting empathy from their western audience, one wonders how successful the makers of Black Gold will be in raising anything but awareness, perhaps DVD sales. When faced with actual sacrifice, Black Gold’s audience may find that they are simply content with pitying those poor farmers in that far off land.
As I think Abe Lincoln once said, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” This would make for an interesting maxim of today’s documentaries. In the wake of Michael Moore and reality TV, documentaries have exploded as a popular genre as never before. However, these new films occasionally abandon traditional journalistic approaches, skewing into pomp. Take Black Gold. In one sequence, the film humiliates a coffee spokesperson for not knowing the names of several baristas participating in her event. The implication is, though she promotes diversity, this woman is a shame and the entire barista competition is nothing more than a crass exercise in (I guess) western insensitivity.
Amazingly, Black Gold itself is also guilty of condescension. Sure, it presents Tadesse Meskela, an Ethiopian tirelessly fighting for his farmers, as its hero and moral centerpiece. Yet, the filmmakers opted to give him subtitles, despite nearly perfect English. The man makes his living as an orator, for God’s sake, his pronunciation was fine. At the same time, the film leaves Ernesto Illy, an Italian coffee executive, subtitle-free. Illy, a warped cross between Ross Perot and Mr. Peanut, could hardly be accused of possessing a strong English accent. That a distinction is made between Meskela and Illy’s accents seems curious.
Black Gold effectively elicits an emotional response with its straightforward use of interviews and hands-off presentation of the average coffee farmer in squalor. However, it remains to be seen to what extent it’ll resonant with audiences beyond a superficial level. Films like this—agenda pictures—run a fine moral line between raising awareness and inadvertently sounding unctuous. Tackling issues as heavy as business ethics, Africa and fair trade risks sounding defeatist if the filmmakers fail in their attempts at changing the world.