Raoul Peck’s four-hour documentary on HBO Max reveals the racist underpinnings of American national mythology and European society.
The new four-part series by Raoul Peck, “Exterminate All the Brutes,” that’s streaming on HBO Max belongs to an exceptional genre: it is, in effect, an illustrated lecture, or a cinematic podcast. Which is to say that it’s an essay-film, a film of ideas, that are for the most part expressed by Peck himself, in his own voice-over, which nearly fills the movie’s soundtrack from start to finish. The four-hour film is in the vein of Peck’s previous essay-film, “I Am Not Your Negro,” which focusses on James Baldwin’s work. “Exterminate All the Brutes” is similarly an intellectual effort. And, like “I Am Not Your Negro,” it introduces and distills, from Peck’s own perspective, extant writings, this time by three historians who study colonialism and racism. Unlike the earlier film, though, the new one doesn’t offer much in the way of film clips from the writers themselves, and doesn’t (at least, doesn’t claim to) quote directly from their work. It is literally a film in Peck’s voice, and that strength, and that audacity, also gives rise to its artistic peculiarities.
“Exterminate All the Brutes” presents a thesis that Peck takes care to frame as a narrative—and an extraordinary, powerful, urgent one. The movie borrows from the work of historians—the late Sven Lindqvist and Michel-Rolph Trouillot, and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz—all friends of Peck’s. What he extracts from their work is something that he explicitly calls “a story, not a contribution to historical research.” The story that he tells is a vast one, a millennial one—that of white supremacy, or, more specifically, whites’ presumption to supremacy, a presumption that, as he makes clear, continues, to this day, to be asserted with violence and justified with lies. Peck ranges back to the Crusades, documenting the claims of white, Christian, European superiority as the argument for conquests in Asia. These events were soon followed by the Spanish Inquisition and its persecution of Jews and Muslims, and—at the same time—the voyage of Columbus to the New World and the genocidal destruction of indigenous peoples that his expedition, and the many explorers that followed, committed.
Peck gathers a set of historical atrocities of vast geographical and historical scope—the colonization of the New World by means of the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of Africans in the Americas, the imperial conquest of Africa by European powers, and the Holocaust—and traces their inextricable connections, their shared theme of white supremacy. “Exterminate All the Brutes” (the title, also that of a book by Lindqvist, is a line spoken by Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s novel “Heart of Darkness”) offers, in effect, a unifying theory of white supremacy and its manifestations—in conquest, in genocide, and in the myths and the pseudoscience by which the killers have justified themselves and continue to do so. As Peck says, “The road to Auschwitz was paved in the earliest days of Christendom, and this road also leads straight to the heart of America.”
What’s more, working with historians, Peck puts the very writing of history at the core of the story; he understands history as the victors’ record of events, and sees American national mythology as a fiction that depends on an assumed racism. A prime example is stated in a title card, “The Myth of Pristine Wilderness,” and Peck develops the idea, stating that “land with no people does not exist” and that “only through killing and displacement does it become uninhabited.” The foundational myth of the “discovery” of the West’s indigenous peoples becomes a tale of Western superiority and of white Europeans’ justified domination, up to and including the extermination of indigenous people—and the cultivation of the cleared land by way of the labor of enslaved Africans. The assumption is matched by the collective will to keep the resulting crimes silenced, the crimes that are the foundation of the Western world’s wealth, Europe’s monumental splendors, and America’s industrial domination—for that matter, its very essence. As Peck says, whiteness has served as “an authorization for abuse, a justification for eternal immunity.”
In the course of his research, Peck says, Lindqvist told him, “You already know enough . . . what is missing is the courage to understand what we know and to draw conclusions.” Peck evokes some crucial historical connections that rarely appear in popular culture. For instance, in the myth of the eighteenth century’s overlapping ages of ostensible enlightenment and revolution, he emphasizes that, unlike the colonial French and American Revolutions, which sought freedom for whites and subjection for Blacks, the Haitian Revolution of 1790 was undertaken in the name of liberation and equality—and was also a crucial event in the development of the United States, when Napoleon, his colonial ambitions dashed, sold off French land in the Louisiana Purchase.