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'Black Gold' percolates with activism

You buy "fair - trade" coffee; you assume you're being socially responsible. But now, along comes "Black Gold" to tell you that all fair-trade coffee is not created equal, and that Ethiopia, the "birthplace of coffee" and home of some of the world's best beans, may be getting the least fair shake of all.

What's a caffeine addict to do? Well, you could start by watching this full-bodied documentary by Marc and Nick Francis, which offers a look inside one area of global trade where injustices seem about as subtle as a triple espresso.

In their filmmaking debut, Britain's Francis brothers lay out some of what has happened since the 1989 collapse of world market regulation by the International Coffee Agreement. Through a pointedly juxtaposed collection of well-shot, effectively edited scenes, "Black Gold" illustrates the disparity between those who grow coffee and those who drink coffee -- racking up about $80 billion per year in retail sales of the ubiquitous liquid.

The heroic soldier in this film's battle to educate consumers is Tadesse Meskela, manager of the Oromia Coffee Farmers Co-operative Union, which represents Ethiopian growers trying to make just enough money to feed and clothe their families and not have to harvest "chat," a higher-paying narcotic leaf. Meskela is a tireless ambassador who travels around the globe preaching the virtues of Ethiopian beans and fair-trade coffees, which come from farmers given direct routes to negotiating better prices than those set by the lowball-oriented commodities market.

One day Meskela is seen checking in on agricultural workers earning pennies a day in Africa, the next day he's manning a trade-show booth in the United States, or searching store shelves trying to find Ethiopian representation among fair-trade brands sold in England. His quiet disappointment is often heartbreaking, and ultimately more powerful than any Norma Rae-style tirade. This is a documentary that gets a lot across while avoiding clichés and easy exploitation, even in famine-ravaged places where more horrific images must have abounded.

There's been some debate about whether fair trade is a watered-down movement now that the label is seemingly everywhere (including at Starbucks) as a menu option rather than a broad corporate philosophy. And there are also those who would argue that domestic strife has been as much of a hindrance to Ethiopia's export trade revenue as any preferential policy supported by the World Trade Organization. Unfortunately, "Black Gold" isn't interested in addressing the nuances of those and other important issues, presumably because they might cloud the call to action that's clearly the movie's mission.

Black gold is a nickname more commonly given to oil, another famously exploited natural resource that has been at the center of more than one war. This time out, the battle is over the world's second most actively traded commodity: coffee. And this passionate little film is here to convince you that educated consumers can decide who wins.

Tonight and tomorrow, Tadesse Meskela is scheduled to introduce the 7:30 screenings of "Black Gold" at Brookline's Coolidge Corner Theatre. On Sunday, Meskela will answer questions after an 11 a.m. Coolidge members-only free screening with complimentary coffee.

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