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Exterminate All the Brutes

Part personal essay, part investigation, the docuseries “Exterminate All the Brutes” is a striking piece of nonfiction work that has the intellectual rigor of an advanced history course, and asks that viewers keep up with its many ideas and horrors over the course of its four hours. Raoul Peck picks and pulls at every connecting fiber throughout history, finding several lines through the ages of how hateful dogma begat public policy, systemic murder, and cultural genocide. If you finish “Exterminate All the Brutes” without re-examining the hundreds of hours spent in history classes, then you didn’t pay attention to Peck’s lesson. 

But Peck is not just concerned with the past. Like his dynamic James Baldwin documentary “I Am Not Your Negro,” Peck is interested in how our past has come to inform our present. In “Exterminate All the Brutes,” he overlays images of the past over our present to find uncomfortable truths and the stories buried under hundreds of years of colonialism. In shots of gorgeous European architectural wonders that were made possible by brutalizing Black and brown subjects in far-flung colonies, Peck overlays photos of these people to obscure the obscene displays of wealth made possible by their exploitation. He traces back decade and century-long struggles between peoples to old shipping routes, the power over which determined the victor. It’s as if Peck’s taken the New York Times’ "1619 Project," which centers the story of Black people in the U.S. and the ramifications of slavery, and stretched it to a global scale—with largely a focus on western civilization like Europe and its colonies—and a lens that also includes the plight of indigenous people on different continents. 

However, using these ideas and tools to reexamine our history are not a recent invention. In both the series’ opening credits and throughout, Peck acknowledges the elders who taught him to question the official story and to look beyond the whitewashed version of what we think we know. He especially draws attention to the works of Sven Lindqvist, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. Some of those mentioned in the series he befriended, like Lindqvist, whose book gives the series its name and overall premise. But the personal anecdotes don't stop with Peck’s version of a class reading list. He gets deeply personal about his own experiences and career. He has benefitted from traveling the world and affording a European education, and the experience has allowed him to see the results of past atrocities up close: when going to film school in Berlin and thinking about how Germany systemized the killing of Jews in the Holocaust just decades prior, losing friends in his home country of Haiti to CIA-backed militaries, traveling to Africa as a child and taking photos with statues honoring white conquerors, and profiling world leaders and watching them be betrayed or commit betrayal for the sake of power. These ruminations appear in line with world events, like when Peck switches from a scathing critique of modern-day world leaders to the inspiration behind his 2013 film “Murder in Pacot” and thinking about what drives oppressed people to take desperate actions. 

Visually, “Exterminate All the Brutes” is just as powerful as Peck’s reading of semi-hidden chapters of history. With his deep, raspy voice, Peck leads audiences through one historic event after another, breaking down how the dehumanization of a perceived other led to their attempted destruction. He uses every tool in the documentary handbook to make history leap off the page, including animated sequences and historical recreations, which often have a metatextual component that compares the past to the present. One such device is the series’ use of Josh Hartnett, who appears in every episode as a white Everyman whose role changes depending on the story Peck is retelling. Hartnett morphs from an U.S. Army sergeant who exterminates members of a Seminole tribe in 19th century Florida in one scene to a colonizer in the Belgian Congo, taking advantage of his power to enact cruelty. He is the forefather of Charlottesville protestors with tiki torches and of the police whose professional lineage can be traced to slave catchers and who benefits from criminalizing others. Basically, he’s anyone who’s benefitted from a few genetic differences and refuses to see his part in the larger scheme of imperialism, colonization and racial oppression. 

As a filmmaker, Peck is well-acquainted with how pop culture can be weaponized against marginalized groups. He points to the mythologized story of the Alamo as a lesson taught by John Wayne and highlights the coded racism in works like H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and the Gene Kelly musical “On the Town.” He details cultural figures like The Wizard of Oz writer L. Frank Baum, who once extolled the need to exterminate indigenous tribes for settlers’ safety, and numerous scientists who used their profession to call for the persecution and subjugation of various groups. The title of Lindqvist's book and the series “Exterminate All the Brutes” comes from Heart of Darkness writer Joseph Conrad, who makes numerous appearances throughout the series for his writing on colonialism in Africa. Essentially, there are few corners of western culture that are exempt from colonialism’s legacy. That HBO, part of one of this nation’s bigger media conglomerates, is airing such an uncompromising look at history feels something like a fluke. 

Peck also uses music to cast a new light on well-worn images, like layering in Maurice Jarre’s score to “Lawrence of Arabia” over a devastating siege in the Middle East that showcased Europe’s fatal firepower. Instead of valorizing the white conquerors, the music now underscores the narrative with a sense of tragedy. Throughout the series, Peck also utilizes music cues to contrast against expectations. There’s dance music added to archival footage, like the upbeat number that accompanies Eva Braun’s home movies, giving the evil posing for pictures within every frame an eerie sense of banality. While Peck is unafraid to show the harrowing results of genocide, he's not interested in further sexualizing oppressed people, creating a sense that he is restoring some of their dignity taken by force. It is also part of how Peck makes “Exterminate All the Brutes” a work of his own. There’s so much of the director in the series, from his previous films to his childhood home movies, that they are inseparable from the history lessons.

In examining the past, Peck finds that history repeats itself with disgusting regularity. His outrage that humanity has not learned from its past is palpable. With each diagram, flicker of old footage, or modern-day anecdote, Peck underlines the connections between ideologies and its consequences, like how the banner of Manifest Destiny rebranded the act of stealing land and resources from perceived enemies as a kind of God-given right dictated by the color of one’s skin and origins. The docuseries includes a look at Donald Trump and fascism, but Peck finds the brutality of American presidents all throughout the ages, back when this country was still a colony. The way the government treated the indigenous people back then still shapes how our military today treats our perceived enemies abroad, all while co-opting the names of tribes for our weapons. 

Peck asks about America, “When exactly was it really great and for whom?” He answers his own question with stacks of evidence against the idea that America could ever consider itself great after all it has done to destroy human life in and out of its borders. The director ends with a sobering thought, that it’s comforting to think that genocide somehow began and ended with Nazi Germany. But Peck isn’t interested in comfort. He dispels that notion, one hour after another, chiseling away at the polite lies passed from generation to generation, in the hopes that we may finally learn something about ourselves and our past. 

Premieres on HBO Max today. 

Monica Castillo

Monica Castillo is a freelance writer and University of Southern California Annenberg graduate film critic fellow. Although she originally went to Boston University for biochemistry and molecular biology before landing in the sociology department, she went on to review films for The Boston Phoenix, WBUR, Dig Boston, The Boston Globe, and co-hosted the podcast “Cinema Fix.” 

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Exterminate All the Brutes movie poster

Exterminate All the Brutes (2021)

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Josh Hartnett

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