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“We would prefer for genocide to have begun and ended with Nazism,” muses filmmaker Raoul Peck in the voiceover that steers his four-part hybrid docuseries Exterminate All the Brutes (HBO). “This would indeed be most comforting.” But genocide was made a prerequisite for the establishment and expansion of America — a fact as obvious to some as it is unacceptable to others. Drawing on the work of historian Sven Lindqvist, from whose 1992 book (and a line from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) Peck takes the title of his project, the I Am Not Your Negro director argues that, though guns, germs and steel played their crucial parts in the Western colonization of Africa and the Americas, it was a 19th century idea that the extinction of “inferior” races was part of the “natural” course of history that gave Europeans ideological cover to annihilate or brutally exploit the peoples native to those continents. The West won, he asserts, because it was willing to wipe out entire civilizations.
But that summary belies the beauty, the intimacy, the creative leaps, even the whimsies in Exterminate All the Brutes, which approaches the history of European colonialism — starting roughly in the late 1400s, when Columbus set sail and Spanish anti-Semitism and Islamophobia solidified the unscientific concept of race as blood-based — with an essayistic stream of consciousness, especially in the docuseries’ first hour. Peck also employs meta-reenactments — many starring Josh Hartnett (the series’ only recognizable actor) as a kind of colonial Zelig who pops up in the American West and in Africa — to reinforce the continuity between exterminations across the globe, as well as to reinstate the shock of an individual killing, even when real-life victims number in the millions. In a similar technique, Peck often zooms out on photos of victims — say, of a Native American child who’s revealed to be surrounded by dozens of fellow Brown students forced into Christian schools (in a practice that often involved abducting children from their parents) — in an effort to memorialize both the tragedy of the one and the group.
Air date: Apr 07, 2021
With Exterminate All the Brutes, Peck seeks to shift our perspective, again and again — to get us to see the founding of America as inherently genocidal, to situate race relations today within a centuries-old exercise of homicidal racism and soul-destroying greed and to sit with the mind-boggling amount of suffering that European and American colonial powers inflicted. When a time-lapse graphic illustrates the 12 million captives taken from Africa to the Americas, for example, it moves slowly enough for at least an iota of that oceanful of needless torture to sink in. (“Trading human beings — what sick mind thought of this first?” asks Peck in his forceful, lyrically aphoristic prose.) In case we’ve grown inured to seeing white men kill Black and brown tribespeople — a script passed down to children in the form of playing “Cowboys and Indians” — Peck has Hartnett’s colonizer murder a group of Black men in modern-day clothes in seemingly contemporary Africa, perhaps to see if the different context makes historical genocide feel any more morally shocking, any less an inevitability.
Despite its bleak subject matter, Exterminate All the Brutes is visually gorgeous, at times even easy to watch. There’s a collage effect to its assemblage of maps, photographs, paintings, film clips, home movies, animation, nature videos, thought-experiment sketches and occasional pop-music interludes. (One image you won’t see: a single talking head.) The series is also packed with unexpected observations, connections and asides — part of the docuseries’ pleasure is getting a peek inside a mind as fascinating and worldly as Peck’s. Rather than relay a detached chronology of European colonialism, he offers his own — one that ping pongs between history and art and reflects on his early childhood in Haiti (“I am an immigrant from a shithole country”), as well as his decade and a half in Berlin. As an aspiring film student in Germany, Peck made a movie about a Nazi torture compound, and much of the docuseries is dedicated to comparisons between the Holocaust and the genocides of Africans and indigenous Americans, including the alarming and under-discussed fact that Hitler looked to the near annihilation of Native Americans as an inspiration for his Final Solution.
Exterminate All the Brutes is a daring, imaginative and defiantly challenging artwork — one that often feels like it belongs as much in a museum as on a TV or laptop. That kind of ambition almost guarantees some minor missteps — I’ll admit to being confounded by some of Peck’s pop-song choices, even when they’re intended with irony. Subject matter as heavy as this will also inevitably attract nitpicks — my chief one being that Peck only briefly touches on the sexual violence and exploitation that accompanied the colonizers’ arrivals (an expansive and endlessly painful subject that, admittedly, could be the center of its own four-hour docuseries). But as this introspective yet cosmopolitan cri de cœur demonstrates, Peck is an ideal guide to help us confront the truths we’ve yet to fully grapple with.
Premieres Wednesday, Apr. 7, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO
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