HBO’s ‘Exterminate All the Brutes’ Is a Flawed Study of White Colonialist Rape and Terror
“The forces involved here are less visible than gunfire, class property or political crusades, but they are no less powerful,” Raoul Peck posits in his new docuseries Exterminate All the Brutes, premiering April 7 on HBO.
The critically acclaimed filmmaker is referring to the series of myths that comprise white supremacy, the subject of the four-part series that explores the brutal methods and ideological justifications of Western colonization. In his latest project, Peck reapplies experimental techniques from his 2016 Oscar-nominated documentary about writer and activist James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro, to challenge our collective understanding of America as a powerful and commonly labeled “great” nation.
Exterminate All the Brutes is laden with accounts of historical events such as the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the Anglo-Powhatan Wars, and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, told bluntly and poetically by Peck, who also serves as sole narrator in addition to writer and director. Like his previous documentary, the series is also in conversation with literature, film, and other works of art that have been influential in either denouncing or propagating false narratives about colonialism and non-white populations, including Sven Lindqvist’s 1992 non-fiction book from which the series takes its name (it’s also a line from the Joseph Conrad novella Heart of Darkness, which is mentioned in the series).
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In part one of the docuseries, titled, “The Disturbing Confidence of Ignorance,” Peck speaks admirably of his late Swedish historian friend, who died in 2019, as he appears in archival footage working in an office. Lindqvist’s desire and willingness to uncover the horrors of colonialism via a journey across the Sahara Desert, the subject of his acclaimed book, serves as both inspiration to Peck in his current research and a model of productive cross-racial relations—if only all white people were that eager to interrogate their position in the world.
Likewise, Peck spends most of the documentary emphasizing the importance of knowing the truth of white supremacy, particularly the employment of genocide in the establishment of African and American colonies, rather than providing a roadmap toward decolonization. This approach will presumably attract viewers who are wrestling with this subject matter for the first time and want to learn about significant events in world history in a relatively short amount of time.
It’s easy to imagine this series appearing across anti-racist viewing lists if it had premiered ahead of last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. But for those who consider themselves knowledgeable about our colonial past and understand how these histories fit into current conversations about the removal of Confederate monuments or ending capitalism or abolishing the police, Peck’s assertions throughout the series that we’re “missing” “courage” to “draw conclusions” from the past, or that dominant historical narratives “need to be challenged,” as if he’s one of the rare few to do so publicly, can feel patronizing and out of touch with the work of non-white historians and the current political movements being led by people of color across the globe.
That said, I’m not sure that I would recommend Exterminate All the Brutes to someone digging into the subject for the first time either, despite the introductory nature of the series. Peck’s excursions through different time periods and parts of the globe, not to mention the countless list of politicians and military leaders that are briefly mentioned and never spoken about again, is hard to keep track of and even retain after a few minutes, as the series moves from one invasion to the next without drawing connections between these incidents of violence. It’s especially disorienting considering that, in the first episode, Peck supplies his audience with a set of basic terms which “summarize the whole history of humanity”—civilization, extermination, and experimentation. He doesn’t abandon these terms, but it would be helpful to viewers if he attempted to categorize the information this way, as well as following the designated topic of each particular episode, which he often strays from.
Peck’s experimental impulses, which are at the very least captivating, also get in the way of coherence. We’re inundated with a wide range of film clips from On the Town to Raiders of the Lost Ark to The Wolf of Wall Street, illustrations, animated maps and charts that move at an unreadable pace, paintings, home videos of Peck’s childhood in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and Democratic Republic of the Congo, and fictional re-enactments. Many of these segments are accompanied by Peck’s monotonous voiceover that viewers might find grating, as there are noticeably no talking heads. But it’s the dramatizations in particular, mostly interactions between white settlers and Black and Indigenous people, that feel especially fruitless and misplaced within the documentary.
In the third episode, “Killing at a Distance or… How I Thoroughly Enjoyed the Outing,” that begins explaining the role of weaponry in imperialism, we spend several minutes watching a fictional enslaved woman undressing a settler (played by Josh Hartnett) and giving him a bath. After hearing a woman start to howl outside, she peers out the window to the sight of four slain Black men Hartnett’s character just lynched. That’s the entirety of the scene, and it’s unclear what we’re supposed to glean from it in relation to the episode’s theme or as a standalone vignette. Likewise, the rest of the re-enactments are poorly conceived and underwritten, including an embarrassingly cliched reimagining of Black people enslaving white people. Others, featuring gratuitous, graphic depictions of Black and Indigenous death, feel like Peck is hand-holding a particular section of his audience and disregarding viewers who don’t need to visualize, say, an Indigenous woman being shot and experiencing additional gruesome violence after her death to believe that sort of brutality occurred.
Standing out in all of this clutter is mesmerizing footage of Peck’s childhood in Haiti that adds an element of intimacy and warmth to a rather bleak film. I was admittedly most interested in how Peck’s upbringing in Haiti (and education later on in Berlin) shaped his view of the world. In part two of the documentary, he talks briefly about his fascination with the pomp and circumstance of Catholicism as a child and his disillusionment with the religion after receiving a beating from a priest at his school. Peck touches on the interrelation between violence and religion in regard to the Crusades and how Europeans labeled non-Christians as savages but not in direct relation to this story, which is left as a loose end. Still, Peck’s voice as a writer feels more confident and relaxed in these autobiographical portions of the film whereas, when he’s editorializing historical events, it can become breathless and stiff.
In its early stages, Exterminate All the Brutes was reportedly a 15-part series. I can’t tell whether a larger allotment of time would have helped Peck’s project feel more or less congested and jumbled. One thing that’s certain is that it’s impossible to expose the ugly truth of colonization without naming sexual violence as a main tool of oppression. Surprisingly, Peck’s docuseries only alludes to non-consensual relations between white settlers and Black, Indigenous, and Asian women (Lindqvist also fails to articulate the ramifications of gendered violence in his book) despite European colonizers’ reliance on rape to terrorize communities and uphold slavery. In the year 2021, this sort of oversight simply feels like erasure.