Posted on April 12, 2021

In ‘Exterminate All the Brutes,’ Raoul Peck Takes Aim at White Supremacy

Robert Ito, New York Times, April 5, 2021

After completing his 2016 documentary “I Am Not Your Negro,” the director Raoul Peck felt he’d had his say on the topic of U.S. race relations. Or at least his subject, the writer James Baldwin, had.

In the film, Baldwin called whiteness a “metaphor for power” and called out this country’s legacy of racism in the bluntest of terms. What more could Peck say that Baldwin hadn’t?


{snip} In the wake of last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, the writer’s work seems as relevant as ever. Even so, said Peck: “I was astonished that people could continue to live their lives as if nothing had happened. As if these words didn’t exist.”

The realization prompted Peck to try to uncover the roots of what Baldwin had written and spoken about so eloquently and passionately: the history of racism, violence and hate in the West. “What was the origin story of all of this?” Peck said he wondered. “Where did the whole ideology of white supremacy begin?”

That search is the focus of Peck’s latest project, “Exterminate All the Brutes,” a supremely ambitious, deeply essayistic undertaking that combines archival footage, clips from Hollywood movies, scripted scenes and animated sequences. Premiering Wednesday on HBO Max, the four-part series charts the history of Western racism, colonialism and genocide, from the Spanish Inquisition and Columbus’s “discovery” of already populated lands, through the stories of the Atlantic slave trade, the massacre at Wounded Knee and the Holocaust.


Peck began thinking about “Exterminate” in 2017 after Richard Plepler, then the chairman of HBO, “cursed” him “for 10 minutes” for not bringing “I Am Not Your Negro” to his network, then offered him carte blanche for his next project.

“We’d been working on several film ideas, both documentary and feature film,” said Rémi Grellety, Peck’s producer for the past 13 years. “And Raoul said, ‘Let’s bring Richard the toughest idea.’”

The film, they told Plepler in a two-page pitch, would be based on the historian Sven Lindqvist’s 1992 book “Exterminate All the Brutes,” a mix of history and travelogue that used Joseph Conrad’s novella “Heart of Darkness” as a jumping off point to trace Europe’s racist past in Africa. (“Exterminate all the brutes” is a phrase written by Kurtz, Conrad’s ivory trading “demigod.”) {snip}


After mining Lindqvist’s book, Peck determined he needed a similar text about the history of genocide in the United States. He came upon “An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States,” Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s American Book Award-winning examination of this country’s centuries-long war against its original inhabitants, and was “wowed.” {snip}


Throughout the series, Peck takes down a succession of sacred cows, including the explorer Henry Morton Stanley (“a murderer”); Winston Churchill, who as a young war correspondent described the slaughter of thousands of Muslim troops at the 1898 Battle of Omdurman as “a splendid game”; and even “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” author, L. Frank Baum, who advocated the extermination of Native Americans after the massacre at Wounded Knee.

Among his most frequent targets is Donald Trump, which the film compares — through a series of powerful juxtapositions — to bigots throughout history. {snip}

As a way of creating a “new vehicle to make you feel what the real world is,” Peck said, he filmed several scenes starring Josh Hartnett as a 19th-century U.S. Army officer (loosely based on Quartermaster General Thomas Sidney Jesup), a racist Everyman who reappears throughout history, hanging Black people and shooting Native Americans. Hartnett met Peck years ago on a failed film project, and then later at Cannes, and the two had become friends.

“Last year, he called me and said he wanted a white American actor to play the tip of the genocidal sword of Western history, and he had thought of me,” Hartnett said. {snip}


Through meta-textual moments and manipulations, Peck creates his own counterbalance to the dominant Western version of history, forcing viewers to think about the narratives, both popular and academic, they’ve been fed all their lives. In one scene, Hartnett’s character shoots an Indigenous woman (Caisa Ankarsparre), only to have it revealed that she is an actress on a film shoot. In another, a 19th century Anglican cleric gives a lecture dividing humanity into the “savage races” (Africans), the “semicivilized” (Chinese), and the “civilized” — to a contemporary audience filled with people of color.

Early in the series, Peck declares, “There is no such thing as alternative facts.” But he also seems to recognize the selective nature of all historical narrative and the power of controlling the image, probing deeper truths in some scenes by asking viewers to imagine what history might be like if things had gone a different way. In one scene, white families are shackled, whipped and marched through the jungle. In another, Columbus’s landing party is slaughtered on the beaches of present-day Haiti in 1492.