‘Ernest Cole: Lost and Found’ Review: Raoul Peck’s Documentary Rediscovers the Fearless Photographer of South African Apartheid

In “I Am Not Your Negro” (2016), his profound and lacerating portrait of James Baldwin, the director Raoul Peck traced the haunted connection between two things: Baldwin’s staggering perception of what it was to be Black in America, and the depth of Baldwin’s struggle with melancholy, self-doubt, and his merciless ability to see truth. For Baldwin, the personal and political came together in uniquely despairing and revealing ways.

Peck’s new documentary, “Ernest Cole: Lost and Found,” could be considered a companion piece to that earlier monumental film. No, it isn’t as powerful. But it, too, is the penetrating portrait of a Black artist — the photographer Ernest Cole, who was born in 1940 in Eersterust, South Africa, and who beginning in the late ’50s took his camera into the streets to chronicle the evils and everyday experience of life under apartheid. He escaped the regime and came to New York City in 1966, and the book he published of his South African photographs, “House of Bondage” (1967), was a wake-up call to the world. It showed people, for the first time, what apartheid looked like. It showed people what it was.

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“I Am Not Your Negro” was held together by Baldwin’s writing, read by Samuel L. Jackson in a voice of almost musical fortitude. In “Lost and Found,” LaKeith Stanfield reads the words of Ernest Cole, but in this movie the equivalent of the lyric directness of Baldwin’s literary genius isn’t the passages we hear from Cole’s letters, journals, etc. (as moving as some of them are). Rather, it’s Cole’s photographs, which take up the entire film. He was inspired to become a photographer when he saw a book of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s images of Moscow, and Cole’s black-and-white photographs have a Cartier-Bresson quality.

His street scenes are vérité dioramas, psychological portraits of life inside a caste system. They capture the power dynamics between Black South Africans and white (and sometimes Black) police officers, and the blank indifference of the white citizens, and the desperate life that pulsates in the Black citizens, despite their poverty and oppressed circumstances. We see the South African version of Jim Crow, featuring signs — on entranceways, drinking fountains — that say “Europeans only,” and it’s a shock to register this variation on our own diabolical system of segregation. We experience the signs like a slap.

With his camera a red flag to officials, Cole risked his life every day. But that’s what happens when you’re recording the workings of a totalitarian society. “I am collecting evidence,” he says. “And sometimes the monster looks back at me.” Cole captured the lives of servants who were paid $15 a month, and the misery of life in the diamond, platinum, iron, and gold mines that were the source of South Africa’s wealth (and the bulwark of the regime’s power). He caught the underlying violence of apartheid, rooted in the white-supremacist political culture of baasskap, recording neighborhoods being obliterated by “slum clearance” (whereby citizens were relocated to tin-roof government ghettos), and the way that every Black South African had to carry a “passbook” containing the record of his life history. He also caught the open violence — he was there at the Sharpville massacre on March 21, 1960, when 69 people were killed by the regime.

“House of Bondage,” the book it took Cole 10 years to create, made him a celebrated figure. Yet there were limitations to the doors it opened, to the things that editors would hire him for; they pigeonholed him as a Black photographer of social consciousness. He did get a grant from the Ford Foundation to create a portrait of the Deep South. But his photographs of life under Jim Crow, while evocative, didn’t match the vividness, by turns tender and jagged, of his South African work. He felt like a stranger in a strange land, and that comes across in the photographs.

And what of Cole’s life, apart from his work? This is where the film is both subtle and eerie. It seems that he didn’t have much of a life. Wandering through New York with his camera, he chronicled a freedom unlike anything he’d ever known (we see his portraits of interracial and gay couples, of women feeling the stirrings of liberation), but it wasn’t a freedom he felt he could totally join. He was an isolated figure, out of sorts and homesick, in many ways depressed. He references “the story of my slow descent into degradation and descent into hell.” He couldn’t return to South Africa, where he would have been arrested by the regime, but in New York he felt like a cipher. He was a small man (just 5’4″), ascetic and monkish, with a face that expressed a certain forlorn quizzicality, and there’s a way he began to recede behind his camera. His book was forgotten, he became homeless, and he died (of cancer) in 1990, just weeks before Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. He became a ghost.

As it turns out, though, “Ernest Cole: Lost and Found” is also a detective thriller. In 2017, negatives of 60,000 of Cole’s photographs that had never been seen were discovered in three safety-deposit boxes in a bank vault in Stockholm. No one knows how they got there. The bank, as an end title explains, is saying nothing (though that seems awfully suspicious). But the film follows the process of discovery, as the boxes are opened and out come the rigorously organized files of film, most of it shot in the U.S. They include many shots we’ve seen in the documentary. Watching “Lost and Found,” you’re moved by a life that veered into tragedy, yet the place it lands lifts you up. More than a great photographer, Ernest Cole captured something essential. By the end you feel the ghost is speaking to you.

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