The Past Has a Future

Over the past 20 years, Raoul Peck has emerged as one of his generation’s leading filmmakers and intellectuals. Beginning with Lumumba and Sometimes in April, his unflinching examinations of the assassination of Patrice Lumumba in 1961 and the Rwandan genocide in 1994, Peck has shown us the horrors of late-stage decolonization and postcolonialism. With his last two feature films, I Am Not Your Negro, about James Baldwin, and The Young Karl Marx, he produced startlingly original and moving portraits of two of his main muses, setting the stage for his latest work, an epic four-part docuseries for HBO, Exterminate All the Brutes.

For Peck, each of his films is as much a vehicle for political argument and posing philosophical questions as it is a way to offer alternative historical narratives. Even as he attempts to reinvent the documentary genre through innovative storytelling, employing a kind of dreamlike melancholy akin to jazz improvisation, as he did in Negro, he is a formalist committed to inventing new cinematographic modes. Although he built his career by assuming the role of journalistic or directorial objectivity and prefers to show rather than tell, he’s unafraid to step out from behind the camera and challenge the underpinnings of those Western myths that shaped his education and continue to define so much of contemporary political life.

With Exterminate All the Brutes, a hybrid documentary that combines rare archival footage, stunning still photography, first-person narration, and scripted, harrowing set-pieces, Peck embraces formalistic play and experiment in a way he hasn’t in the past, successfully merging feature-film-style vignettes with documentarian flourishes of text, image, and collage. The series’ four hour-long episodes—“The Disturbing Confidence of Ignorance”; “Who the F*** Is Columbus?”; “Killing at a Distance or… How I Thoroughly Enjoyed the Outing”; and “The Bright Colors of Fascism”—do not so much focus on themes as use them as jumping-off points that allow Peck and his characters to riff on the jagged edges of colonialism, slavery, the mass displacement and destruction of Native Americans, and the normalization of genocide. While this might seem an impossibly broad task, Peck makes his nonlinear lament work, the coherent force residing in its investigation of memory and a precise distillation of visual and aural affect.

By turns deeply disturbing, engagingly personal, and darkly amusing, Exterminate All the Brutes is a sweeping journey across time and continents. The series takes its title from a book by Sven Lindqvist, who used the famous line—scrawled at the bottom of a report to an ivory trading company by an increasingly deranged Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness—to launch his own ruminations on the colonial mindset. In his preface, Lindqvist tells his readers that these words were intended by Conrad to describe what was really behind the “civilizing task of the white man in Africa”—that is, identifying “inferior races” for destruction. For Lindqvist, this horror show of genocidal violence was carried out on four continents before coming home to roost with “Hitler’s destruction of six million Jews in Europe.” Peck’s project embraces the grand scope of this past, but he also keeps his viewers focused on its legacy today.

Peck establishes this line of inquiry early in the first episode, when he directs the viewer’s attention to three themes that he will return to again and again: civilization, colonization, and extermination. These are central parts, he argues, of the world’s Westernization. The essence of colonialism is a belief in a civilizing project that celebrates the beneficence of a superior race in its subjugation of inferiors, which often entails mass murder and displacement. For this reason, Conrad—before introducing Kurtz’s unambiguous call for extermination—has Marlow recall the text of report that Kurtz was writing: “We whites, from the point of development we had arrived at, ‘must necessarily appear to them [savages] in the nature of supernatural beings—we approach them with the might of a deity,’ and so on, and so on.”

For the typical HBO viewer, Peck’s frankness about violence and colonialism might be difficult to comprehend, though the increasing recognition of the structural nature of racism gives it a kind of inevitable logic. Peck offers us three authors as his guides: Lindqvist, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, and Michel-Rolph Trouillot. In Lindqvist, a longtime friend and collaborator and the rare “European who dares see the beast for what it is,” Peck finds a world traveler doggedly uncovering the excesses of genocidal violence. In Dunbar-Ortiz, the author of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, he finds a scholar of Native American history who has focused much of her work—especially Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment—on the use of guns and slave patrols to displace and discipline Native and African Americans.

As a fellow Haitian, Peck finds in Trouillot’s classic work of historiography, Silencing the Past, a reflection of his own frustration with Haiti’s marginalization and the more general silencing of those who resisted their extermination. A book that seeks to reveal how historians often erased the Haitian Revolution, “the only revolution that materialized the idea of enlightenment, freedom, fraternity and equality for all,” Silencing the Pastalso gives Peck a rallying catchphrase: “History is the fruit of power; whoever wins in the end gets to frame the story.” Peck embraces Trouillot’s assertion that erasing the Haitian Revolution was essential to the modern Western historical narrative, even if many historians denied that fact. The revolution “created the possible,” Peck notes, by playing an important role in the collapse of the system of slavery. “It was the ultimate test of the universalist pretensions of both the French and American revolutions.”

Still from Exterminate All the Brutes of a 1909 New York protest. (Courtesy of HBO)

Exterminate All the Brutes begins by exploring the mindless brutality of the colonial project. We are introduced to a leader of the Seminole Nation (played by Caisa Ankarsparre) and Gen. Sidney Jessup, one of Andrew Jackson’s henchmen (played by Josh Hartnett), and follow them as the Seminole leader seeks to hold on to territory she shares with Maroons. When Jessup stops her in the middle of a field, she confronts him bluntly: “You call human beings property? You steal land, you steal life, you steal humans? What kind of species are you?” Jessup replies, “This kind,” and then pulls out a gun and shoots her.

The camera pulls away from her in silence, and Peck later explains why: “Our job as filmmakers is to deconstruct these silences.” At the end of the second episode, he embellishes a graphic rendering of Choctaw people dying in snowdrifts with a quote from Tocqueville, who witnessed the Trail of Tears: “No crying. All were silent.” A cringe-worthy sequence focusing on a photo shoot of the journalist and explorer Henry Morton Stanley and his enslaved adopted child Kalulu uses silence to reveal a kind of terror. In fact, the continuing silence of those who have benefited from colonialism in the face of such violence and exploitation is the series’ most chilling silence of all.

Peck himself, however, is noticeably not silent. Early on, he acknowledges the necessity of putting himself into the story, his gravelly citizen-of-the-world voiceover replacing Samuel Jackson’s sonorous gravity in I Am Not Your Negro. Using home-movie footage of his family’s trip to the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City, Peck begins to tell us his own story. “It’s not about you, unless the story is bigger than you,” he intones, adding, “Neutrality is not an option.”

As the series develops, we come to realize how far from neutrality Exterminate All the Brutes is—and with good reason, given its subject. The show is a relentless attack on racism, genocide, colonialism, and the extractive nature of imperialist and post-imperialist forms of capitalism. It tells the story in longue durée to remind us of the immensity and depravity of this history, from the dawn of African slavery to the marketing of displaced Native Americans’ land to the rubber plantations of the Belgian Congo that helped sate the growing European thirst for bicycling. It’s about what Walter Mignolo called “the darker side of Western modernity.” Like I Am Not Your Negro, the style is fluid, nonlinear, fond of using Barbara Kruger/Jenny Holzer–inspired text slogans, at times zanily posted, as on an egregiously racist clip from the Hollywood staging of On the Town, or paired with Anita Ward’s post-disco classic “Ring My Bell.”

In some ways, Peck’s style resonates with Adam Curtis’s story-driven hybrid docs, in which he uses BBC-footage collages and flashing title cards layered with an ironic musical soundtrack to frame big ideas and dark truths about empire. Curtis’s latest, Can’t Get You Out of My Head, tries to explain the current apocalyptic overhang by juxtaposing historical figures like Mao’s wife Jiang Qing, New York Black Panther Afeni Shakur, Soviet dissident Eduard Limonov, and conspiracy theorist Kerry Thornley. Curtis incorporates more Black characters than usual, and the ending of episode two concludes with a fiery Stokely Carmichael speech punctuated by the Mekons’ “Where Were You?” But Peck’s style embodies a Black historical materialism—one that charts the passage of time through the lens of Baldwin and Marx rather than Freud. Like Curtis, he knows the Western world prefers a fantasy to reality, but he is also interested in how this fantasy is realized in hyperreality. “I know this story is painful, but we need to know it,” he says with sober recognition at the end of episode one, after flashing clips from Apocalypse Now and Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God, and he isn’t kidding.

Exterminate All the Brutes is not an easy series to watch: Much of what we see is disturbing, from a montage of photographs listing various genocides to the uncomfortable staging of Hartnett as an enforcer on a Congo rubber plantation cutting off a rebellious worker’s hands, to the more psychological revelations of the way this sort of violence is embedded in quotidian culture. In one sequence, Peck moves from home movies of Adolf Hitler kicking it in the countryside with Eva Braun to an explanation of how settler colonialism “requires violence and the elimination of natives,” before reaching a climax of sorts with a quote from William Carlos Williams: “The land, don’t you feel it? Doesn’t it make you want to go out and lift dead Indians tenderly from their graves to steal from them some authenticity as it must be clinging even to their corpses?”

When Peck comes across a reference—“kill the brutes”—to Kurtz’s dictum in H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, he lingers on the idea that Wells’s protagonist found a kind of titillating terror in smashing and killing the subhuman Morlocks. Moving on to Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, he muses about the scientist “civilizing the animals with torture.” “The nightmare is buried deep within our consciousness,” Peck adds. “It says who you are and what you have become.”

As we come to the series’ end, Exterminate All the Brutes forces us to consider how American mythology accepts the westward expansion as a tragicomic struggle between cowboys and Indians, when in reality it was soaked through with bloody carnage. It suggests that behind the manufacture and distribution of benign household products lies the figurative or literal dismemberment of slave labor. Peck argues that buried in the Western mindset is the notion that the burden of privilege and of imposing civilization requires the frequent spilling of blood.

The hybrid aspect of Exterminate All the Brutes works well, for the most part, from a scene set in the Congo in 1895, where Hartnett is bathed by an expressionless Black female slave as Ella Fitzgerald croons “The Man I Love” in the background, to a scene in London where people of color dressed in 21st-century fashions walk out of an 1866 lecture on racial categorization by the Darwinist philologist Frederick Farrar, to a scene in which a Black priest watches while young white slaves are whipped. The vignettes serve as a way of increasing the viewer’s uneasiness, as a rote recounting of atrocities gives way to a gnawing uncertainty about how they might be depicted in one of Peck’s fictional set-pieces.

The richly textured layers of the series also reflect the auteur himself, whose detached analytical narrative slips at times into a personal, confessional style, and whose earlier films were already a cross between genres. In the third episode, he wrestles with a Du Boisian “double consciousness,” even a triple or quadruple one—as a Brooklyn Black man taught never to go on the wrong side of the tracks; a “good soldier, a perfectly well-educated student of Western humanistic civilization”; a Haitian who has traveled extensively in Africa; and a precocious student who learned about Marx while studying film in Berlin, where he lived for 15 years. Peck is aware of his relative privilege, but he also remains wedded to an internationalism that allows him to see the tentacles of slavery, colonialism, and domination in the Americas, Europe, and Africa rather than a project confined to just one area of the world.

Among the many themes developed here, Peck is particularly effective in weaving a narrative thread between the construction of race and racism and the current state of endless worldwide war. He begins with the “originators of the project,” the late medieval Spanish, and their classification of Black and Indigenous people as “other.” He visually quotes Jean-Daniel Verhaeghe’s film Dispute in Valladolid, about the 16th-century de las Casas–Sepulveda debate that found Indigenous people worthy of religious conversion, shifting enslavement practices toward Africans.

Later, Peck offers a reading of how “the West” distinguished itself from “the rest” through the development of weapons: first cannons, then automatic rifles that “killed long before the weapons of their opponents could reach them.” In another extended passage, he explores the genealogy of the US arms industry, beginning with America’s first corporation, the Arsenal of Springfield, founded at the Springfield (Mass.) Armory in 1777, where the assembly line and interchangeable parts became the essence of America’s industrial revolution. The military-industrial complex, a term coined by Eisenhower almost two centuries later, is nicely illustrated by a montage of revolving-door figures like Norman Augustine of Lockheed, John C. Rood of Raytheon, and former vice president Dick Cheney, among others.

Peck also follows the story of how, in the 19th century, scientific racism became the law of the Western land. After Darwin’s theory of evolution proved useful to race scientists like Herbert Spencer and Georges Cuvier, “genocide became the inevitable by-product of progress,” Peck argues. The idea of “killing at a distance” emerged out of the easy Dutch and British victories against the Spanish Armada; continued in the late 19th century with Winston Churchill reporting for the Morning Post on the lack of excitement in the British subjugation of Sudan in the bloody Battle of Omdurman in 1898; and had its climactic moment, of course, with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which Peck punctuates with Elmore James’s plaintive guitar riffing on “The Sky Is Crying.” “The only language they seem to understand is the one we use when we bomb them,” President Truman’s recorded voice says over the music.

For Peck, the horrifying mass slaughter at the end of World War II comes out of the horrifying evolution of weapons and imperial tactics that allowed the West to dominate in the first place. Now we are back at the beginning—at Lindqvist’s insistence that the Nazis’ atrocities against Europe’s Jews, Romani, Slavs, and homosexuals stemmed from the centuries of genocide and racialized violence in the Americas and Africa that preceded them, and that they represent, as Aimé Césaire observed in Discourse on Colonialism, how fascism was colonialism turned inward on Europe.

What comes next? Exterminate All the Brutes does not say, other than that “the past has a future we never expect.” The key, for Peck, is that we must refuse to forget what happened. We cannot let that past fade from our memories in the future, either. As Baldwin said to Dick Cavett on a late-night talk show excerpted in I Am Not Your Negro, “All your buried corpses now begin to speak.” I think of George Floyd and the other Black Americans killed by the police over the past year, and how throughout this film, Peck also allows us a way of hearing them speak, too—and how this speech may help us construct a better future.

Originally published in The Nation June 14, 2021

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