Saturday, June 22, 2024

“ERNEST COLE: LOST AND FOUND”

THE STORY – Ernest Cole, a South African photographer was the first to expose the horrors of apartheid to a world audience. His book House of Bondage, published in 1967 when he was only 27 years old, led him into exile in NYC and Europe for the rest of his life, never to find his bearings. Raoul Peck recounts his wanderings, his turmoil as an artist and his anger, on a daily basis, at the silence or complicity of the Western world in the face of the horrors of the Apartheid regime. He also recounts how, in 2017, 60,000 negatives of his work were discovered in the safe of a Swedish bank.

THE CAST – LaKeith Stanfield

THE TEAM – Raoul Peck (Director/Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 105 Minutes


South African photographer Ernest Cole came to international prominence in 1967 when his book “House of Bondage” revealed to the world in stark detail the manifold brutalities of the white supremacist Apartheid regime in South Africa. The book catapulted him to international fame as a photographer of great artistry, but the South African government exiled him from his homeland and banned the book. His work documenting life in New York and then the Civil Rights struggle in the United States was celebrated and supported for a time; however, Cole found it challenging to make a living and was caught in a spiral of depression and poverty, which led to periods of homelessness. His most famous book would fall out of print throughout the following decades, and he would die relatively young, with much of his work seemingly lost to history.

This loss is the subject of Raoul Peck’s new documentary, “Ernest Cole: Lost and Found,” as well as an attempt to enact the second part of the film’s subtitle. Partly, it is an act of resurrection, simply by allowing viewers to see so many of Cole’s photographs – works that are alive with narrative and incident. Cole’s letters and diaries – read by LaKeith Stanfield – provide an intimate portrait of a man constantly struggling with his own ability to deal with the mystery he documented: “I want to write about people, not enemies,” he says at one point. A fine jazz soundtrack adds a rich layer, complementing Stanfield’s sensitive readings.

Cole interprets his own photographs, reading the expression on the faces of bystanders as a policeman inspects a Black boy’s “passbook,” the document that traces every movement and permission a Black person makes and needs and which could be withdrawn on a whim. Cole confesses to the paranoia he feels, but he is a man who has grown up in a system of systemic racism and violence, which he has risked his life to witness. Some of his photographs show the signage of division with “Europeans Only,” signifying comfort, spaciousness, and ease at literally spitting distance from the packed, poor, decrepit provision for the majority Black population. He shows the violence meted out by policemen – some of them Black – as well as the random slaps and scoldings that a white citizen felt fully entitled to deliver.

“House of Bondage” took Cole ten years of dangerous work to produce. His escape to the States came with the usual ambivalences of the exile but also represented a disappointment. In the USA, he encountered a version of segregation in the “Jim Crow” laws and a level of poverty among the Black population as depressing as anything he saw in South Africa. It was made all the more obvious by living in proximity to the consumerism and abundance of twentieth-century capitalism. In the South, it was even worse. As Cole says, “In South Africa, I was afraid of being arrested. In the US, I was afraid of being shot.” Despite some success and a trip to Europe, where his work was also appreciated, it was as if Cole was damaged by what he saw. The camera is often posited as a site of calm neutrality. In “Goodbye to Berlin” Christopher Isherwood famously begins by asserting his objectivity: “I am camera”. But Cole’s case is evidence that the camera in the hands of a Black man provides no safe distance, no assurance of protection. The portraits other photographers took of him are all snatched, with Cole looking up at the lens as if wary of being caught.

In 2017, 60,000 negatives of Cole’s work were discovered in a safety deposit box in Stockholm. How they got there is a mystery, and there is a subtext that a Black artist has been robbed of credit and the ability to profit from his own hard work and genius entirely. However, the film is more intent on making its argument for finding and honoring Cole rather than dwelling on the whys and wherefores of how he was lost in the first place.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - A genuinely moving and elevating work that continues Peck’s championing of Black artists and voices.

THE BAD - It will leave you wanting to know more but that’s not a bad thing.

THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - Best Documentary Feature

THE FINAL SCORE - 8/10

Subscribe to Our Newsletter!

Related Articles

Stay Connected

101,150FollowersFollow
101,150FollowersFollow
9,315FansLike
9,315FansLike
4,686FollowersFollow
4,686FollowersFollow

Latest Reviews

<b>THE GOOD - </b>A genuinely moving and elevating work that continues Peck’s championing of Black artists and voices.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>It will leave you wanting to know more but that’s not a bad thing.<br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b><a href="/oscar-predictions-best-documentary-feature/">Best Documentary Feature</a><br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>8/10<br><br>"ERNEST COLE: LOST AND FOUND"