Raoul Peck takes an unflinching look at the history of settler colonialism from a national and global perspective in Exterminate All the Brutes (2021), a new docu-series premiering on HBO. Peck demonstrates how this history is a “demographic catastrophe” through a magnificently assembled narrative that tugs at viewers’ emotions. As critical race theory continues to be under attack, Peck’s film provides a solid argument for why historical context matters. “Knowledge is power but history is the fruit of power,” he narrates. “Whoever wins in the end gets to frame the story.”
Exterminate All the Brutes is at once a stunning visual text as well as a deeply personal essay. The four-hour series explores white supremacy and its impacts in the Americas by drawing from the works of three scholars—Sven Lindqvist’s Exterminate All the Brutes, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, and Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past. Peck scaffolds his work by bridging historical facts with personal perspective, offering a foundation for interrogating the legacy of colonialism. Peck takes this foundation and runs with it, urging viewers to consider the truths of colonial history and its impacts on this contemporary moment.
Although Peck is dealing with over one thousand years of genocide and racism, he manages to contain critical moments in this timeline while interlacing his ideas throughout the docu-series. The filmmaker opens the series with Caisa Ankarsparre who portrays an Indigenous woman from the Seminole Nation in 1863. Immediately, Peck makes the connection to his mother, transposing her image onto Ankarsparre’s. As Peck is recounting the similarities and differences in their stories, the veil over the filmmaking world is pulled back, revealing the set as Peck narrates the underlying basis of the series.
Narrated by the filmmaker, Peck’s deep, raspy voice guides the historical context for each segment of the series. Peck urges the audience to think more critically about what they see. His narration is intensely personal. His voice is at times pensive, simmering with rage and other times wry with wit. Throughout, however, he maintains an even tone, hitting each historical note with heft. Peck-as-narrator makes the personal aspect of the series that much more poignant. An immigrant from Haiti, Peck weaves his family story with the other filmic elements to contemplate the full impact of white supremacy in this country.
While most documentaries strive for neutrality, Peck has a distinct angle. He’s upfront about his perspective and reinforces his position often so that there is no question: “Because I am an immigrant from a shithole country, neutrality is not an option,” he says at one point in the series. His reference to being from a “shithole country” is directly quoted from Donald Trump, whose lashing about immigrants (and in this case, particularly Haitians) drew ire from immigrants and citizens alike.
Peck articulates “civilization, colonization, extermination,” as the premise of the series. To illustrate this, he takes us on a ride through history, highlighting the people who had a hand in shaping it. By revisiting historical events such as the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas, Peck meticulously details the roots of white supremacy across each historical marker. From here he delves into narratives about First Nations genocide, American slavery, and the Holocaust. Linking them together reminds viewers how intertwined and widespread these events are.
As a televisual text, Peck delivers a superb piece of visual work that leverages a variety of documentary devices. The only tactic that Peck doesn’t use is a talking head, but this is not his style. Peck’s use of reenactments, archival footage and photographs, and strategically-placed animation serve as the tracks which move the documentary, sometimes at breakneck speed. In particular, the reenactments add a layer of dramatization which situates the viewer right in the middle of historical events. The reenactments are sometimes quite visceral; bullets fly, blood is shed. Peck does not shy away from the gory business of conquering. In some cases, Peck breaks even this convention. For instance, one reenactment is simply an archival photo of a young Black boy, Kalulu, and a white explorer, Henry Morton Stanley, in various positions. The photos include the voice of a British man directing the various poses. During the narration, the camera focuses on different areas of the photograph, creating movement and awareness of elements such as the young boy’s grim expression. Then, the voiceover switches back to Peck, and this, over another set of photos of Kalulu, is where we get insight into how the young boy really feels about Stanley.
Josh Hartnett is cast as the “every white man,” a character embodying a variety of figures over time who have excreted power. In an interview with Kim Masters, Peck discussed the intentionality of casting Hartnett and why his role is so important. He reflected:
I needed somebody who was clearly American. The perfect American genuine white man and you don’t think of Josh as being the bad guy. On the contrary, you rather think of him as the good guy. And it was important that at all times, during the whole four episodes, that we see him as a human being and not just as a crazy bastard. And the choice of Josh was, of course, important in that and that’s also a conversation, for me, to have with Josh who I knew for more than 20 years now than an actor I didn’t know. Josh is also a very political person, that’s unfortunately what most of Hollywood sometimes doesn’t know, they just see the star. But he’s somebody who is involved, who understands the world, who traveled. There’s a good reason he left Hollywood at some point. So, I knew who I was dealing with and who I could ask. There could not be any cheating in it, you know. He had to be sincerely full force into the role. Other actors would have played perfectly but from a notion that “I am playing a bad guy so I am better than this bad guy.” That, I did not want.
Peck’s use of music throughout the docu-series is magnificent. From the Commodores’ “Machine Gun” to Emiline Michel’s “Mwen Pare,” Peck curates a soundtrack that pairs with each visual moment. In part three of the docuseries, Peck chooses B.B. King’s “Treat Me Right” as an overlay to images and words that examine what Peck calls “the over infatuation of genetic purity.” His ability to knit pieces of various movies (including his own) together demonstrates Peck’s filmmaking savvy as well as his deep knowledge of cinema. He also uses footage from his home videos to add an even deeper layer of context to the story about Blackness and Black immigration. So often in this country, Black migrants are made invisible in the debates and work on immigration; Peck’s home videos show the expansiveness of the immigrant story.
Raoul Peck has built his career on presenting stories that penetrate the fabric of our socio-cultural sensibilities. Documentaries such as I Am Not Your Negro (2016), a masterful interpretation of race in America through the lens of James Baldwin’s texts, combines research and curiosity with a healthy dose of critical analysis. In the same way, his analysis of race in Exterminate All the Brutes tackles the issue of white supremacy by critically probing history through the lens of marginalized people. His extrapolation of genocide as an experience beyond Nazi Germany, for example, opens a conversation of just how pervasive white supremacy is. Peck does this to point out that supremacy takes on many forms but, in the end, produces the same violence and erasure regardless of when or how it appears.
Peck’s docu-series is a disruption on many fronts. It is disrupting the narrative of white supremacy; disrupting the documentary narrative form; disrupting essentializing the Black experience. In doing so, Peck calls out the real brutes—whiteness, and all who have leveraged it to gain power.