There's been a proliferation of "globalization sucks" documentaries over the past couple of years, but few have been as blunt as Black Gold, a look inside the coffee business by British filmmaker brothers Marc and Nick Francis. While these kinds of movies usually just tsk-tsk at the inequities between First World and Third World living conditions, Black Gold explains exactly what's gone wrong and how to fix it. In short: Ever since international coffee pricing was deregulated in 1989, the amount paid to farmers and pickers has gone down, while the cost of a cup at Starbucks has gone up. And though the WTO makes noises about how poor nations need to make their own way rather than relying on foreign aid, the richest countries deny the impoverished a place at the bargaining table, apparently preferring to rally their citizens into providing periodic famine relief rather than risk upsetting corporate campaign donors.
That's a message people need to hear, but the problem with Black Gold is that anybody who reads the paragraph above will have gotten the movie's message. Yes, the Francis brothers provide a little nuance. They show the daily struggles of Ethiopian coffee growers, and they follow the efforts of Tadesse Meskela, manager of a coffee farmers' co-operative, as he negotiates with activist businessmen to sell beans directly at a fairer price for both buyer and seller. But compared to a documentary like Darwin's Nightmare, which found disturbing visual analogues for the moral rot of global trade, Black Gold makes most of its points in words, not pictures.
Not that the Francis brothers don't try. Periodically, they cut to the smug pronouncements of Starbucks managers, specialty Italian coffee roasters, and world-class baristas, who express their love of coffee in ways that make them look shallow, pseudo-sophisticated, and completely clueless when it comes to the plight of the people who provide their product. But it's not like the filmmakers confront them with the facts and ask their opinions. Black Gold prefers to exploit their happy ignorance for cheap irony. They don't even pay full price.