Truly, what else was there left to say about race in America after the words of James Baldwin? This is what Raoul Peck found himself contemplating after the success of his 2016 documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, which was nominated for an Academy Award and won an Emmy, a Bafta and a César award. He was confounded and disappointed to realize that some audiences, particularly in Europe, weren’t fully comprehending the work of what he calls “one of the best, if not the best analyst of what racism is”, believing it to be primarily an American concern.
“I wanted to prove them wrong, that in fact they are the origin story and that United States racism is just the continuation of a long history of Eurocentric domination,” he told the Guardian via phone from Paris. “If Baldwin’s words are not sufficient to understand what it is about, what else can? I felt the need to even go to a broader scope of the story of racism and white supremacy.”
His new HBO series Exterminate All the Brutes is a sweeping journey back through some of the most horrific moments in civilization over the past half-millennium to trace the roots of humanity’s worst impulses: genocide, slavery, fascism, white supremacy, colonialism. Written, directed and narrated by Peck, the four-hour series (pruned down from 15 episodes) is scaffolded by the ideas of three cornerstone texts: Sven Lindqvist’s Exterminate All the Brutes (examining Europe’s genocidal colonization of Africa), Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (the first history of the country told from the perspective of indigenous peoples) and Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past (an analysis of power and silence in history, focusing on Haitian history). The work of the three authors, who are credited in the opening titles, serves as a lodestar in the same way Baldwin’s writing did in I Am Not Your Negro.
Peck spent three years assembling a staggering battery of imagery, including archival footage, film clips, infographics, historical documents and ephemera, photographs, artwork, scripted interludes and animated scenes. (Conspicuously missing are talking heads.) The result is a discursive collage of uncommon ambition that connects injustices and atrocities from the Spanish Inquisition (when the notion of biological race was born) to Christopher Columbus, the transatlantic slave trade, the Indian Removal Act, the Alamo, the Congo Free State, the Battle of Omdurman, the Nazis, Hiroshima and the presidency of Donald Trump, braiding the micro with the macro, personal accounts with mass culture, history with contemporary life and fiction. As Baldwin himself said: “History is not the past – it is the present.”
And the personal: Peck also threads his own peripatetic story throughout, via family snapshots, Super 8 home movies, clips from his own films and gravelly narration, leveraging his distinct experience as one raised in former colonies (Haiti and the Democratic Republic of the Congo) who has now spent many decades in colonizers’ nations (the US, France, Germany). “I am an immigrant from a shithole country,” he says over footage of his family, smiling, at leisure.
References to Trump are many, but Peck says he didn’t intend to speak to our particular age or any specific audience. “I don’t go about my work looking for what is the right moment. On the contrary, my work is always from a very organic point of view. I just follow the vibes around me. There is a limited amount of film that I probably will be able to make. I do make sure that my films will survive the test of time. And to be frank with you, I don’t really care if the film is well received or not right now. It’s about, will it be possible for young people in 30 years, 40 years to find that film? They can find some materials to use for their own fight.”
That attitude emboldens him to highlight groups and events that have been silenced in history and interrogate what he sees as taboo topics, like settler colonialism, whereby settlers violently replace indigenous peoples and then use the land in perpetuity. “Everybody needs to acknowledge that the story of the United States started with a genocide,” Peck says. “Until you can do that, nothing makes sense.” He believes this is the first time such concepts have been delineated in a film. “I don’t know any other film that voices it so clearly and so solidly. It’s like a no-no in the US – you don’t play with their origin story. There clearly have been big differences between immigrants, refugees and natives. They decided to call it a country of immigrants, but it’s not.”
The selected film clips are an indictment of cinema’s role in propagating these myths, ranging from Apocalypse Now to Tarzan, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Gangs of New York, The Last Samurai and even the 1949 musical On the Town. (Peck has admitted that it was challenging to secure the rights to some of these clips given the context.) Many literary classics are also marshaled as evidence: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, HG Wells’s The Time Machine and The Island of Dr Moreau, James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer. As Baldwin put it: “We have made a legend out of a massacre.”
All together, the series is a strident deconstruction of western narratives, both popular and academic, that prods the audience to probe their assumptions. And some of the moments that most challenge are ahistorical or scripted dramatizations: a black priest encounters a group of white children who are shackled and beaten in a jungle; a white photographer brusquely poses Congolese rubber workers whose hands have been cut off for a portrait; a 19th-century scholar lectures on racial hierarchy to jeers from a multicultural, modern audience. “I had feelings, emotions, experiences that were very difficult to convey through normal means, but I knew that I could in fiction,” Peck says of these sequences. (Actor Josh Hartnett, who has portrayed several all-American archetypes in his career, was the director’s choice to play a murderous white Everyman throughout history.)
Some reviewers have critiqued the series’ relatively brief mentions of sexual violence as a tool of colonization, a reading that Peck calls “very superficial”. “For me it’s exactly the tribalistic attitude that people have now,” he says, his voice rising with irritation. “They only see their own little story. I’m sorry, this story is bigger, and exactly that’s what I tend to do, to include everybody, not to say your story is more important.”
The series is likely to provoke most viewers in some way, and Peck admits it’s a work that demands active participation. “The film is very dense, but I leave room for you as an audience to find your place, to bring your own experience, your own emotion, your own reflection. Sometimes it’s shocking what is happening on the screen, but there are moments when you can draw back to yourself. It doesn’t leave you outside.”
After all, as Peck says in the film: “It’s not knowledge we lack. What is missing is the courage to understand what we know and to draw conclusions.”