Empire of Pain

Raoul Peck’s ‘Exterminate All the Brutes’ is a bitter, necessary history lesson

Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro was one of the best films of 2016, but that documentary précis of an unfinished literary project by author James Baldwin evidently didn’t say everything that was on Peck’s mind concerning Black-white racial relations, civil rights, cultural hegemonies and imperialism—the really big subjects. Now along comes Peck’s Exterminate All the Brutes. It’s a whirlwind of meaning about how the world got this way, a moral and philosophical appeal to reason, wrapped up in a documentary best viewed unhurriedly, in order to let it all sink in.

Writer-director-narrator Peck’s starting point is his own personal history as a Black native of Haiti, raised in post-colonial Africa, educated in Europe and now a French public intellectual who has witnessed the effects of racist imperialism everywhere he’s been, and responded to that with his films.

The monumental four-part series, presented on HBO Max, is also based on the writings of author Sven Lindqvist, historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot—people who, in common with Peck, were horrified by the effects of white supremacy and the “three words that summarize the whole history of humanity: Civilization, Colonization and Extermination.”

In four eye-popping one-hour chapters, Exterminate All the Brutes shows so many sad, unfair outcomes that we occasionally might feel the need to stop and reflect. How the hell did this ever happen? The punches land heavily: The Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and the Holocaust. Rubber plantations in the Congo. Slave trafficking along trade routes. The “discovery” of America and subsequent domination of Native lands by European adventurers. The Trail of Tears. Wounded Knee. The history of imperial warfare. Nazis. Hiroshima and Nagasaki. America’s military-industrial complex.

But wait, there’s more. “Superior” and “inferior” races. Eugenics. Manifest Destiny. The silence of complacency. Genocide as the inevitable by-product of progress. Manzanar internment camp. Selma. Charlottesville. Swedes in the 1990s complaining about too many Black faces in a Christmas catalogue. And L. Frank Baum, creator of the beloved Wizard of Oz fantasies, calling for “the total extermination of the Indians.” Peck’s enormous illustrated encyclopedia of greed and hatred is enough to completely demoralize those of us who happen to be white—but, as has been explained so often before, will come as no surprise to people of color. They already know it by heart, from experience.

It’s almost too much to digest. But compared to the enormity of Peck’s indictment, the bombardment of images actually falls short—they can barely keep pace with the outrage. In addition to the documentary material, the series weaves in scenes from Peck’s never-completed adaptation of novelist Russell Banks’ Continental Drift, starring actor Josh Hartnett as the embodiment of Euro-American colonial rapaciousness, slaughtering his way through indigenous populations.

As in I Am Not Your Negro, Peck takes advantage of a bounty of ghastly clips from popular Hollywood and foreign flicks depicting what happens when white men bearing guns—or briefcases—meet uncivilized underdogs, from Island of Lost Souls and Aguirre, the Wrath of God to The Wolf of Wall Street. The director is not above making fun of the “master race”—Peck sets Eva Braun’s home movies of the high life at Berchtesgaden to a reggae soundtrack. The library shots are magnificently repulsive.

Of course, the conquerors were guilty of more than just bad taste. Utilizing a thrilling array of graphics and animation, Peck guides us along “the search for purity and for a godly kingdom” by white Europeans, and outlines how racism and cupidity were institutionalized. Over time, the imperialist doctrine came to be accepted as a given. French author Trouillot saw the process as an effort to silence the past. Peck agrees: “It is an exercise of power that makes some narratives possible, and silences others.” Exterminate All the Brutes is a bold attempt at a remedy. Says Peck, “The happiness of one cannot be built on the pain of all others.”

“Exterminate All the Brutes” is available on HBO Max.

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