In ‘Exterminate All the Brutes,’ Raoul Peck Takes Aim at White Supremacy
After completing his 2016 documentary “I am not your negro”, director Raoul Peck had the feeling that he had spoken on the subject of US racial relations. Or at least his subject, the writer James Baldwin, had.
In the film, Baldwin called the white a “metaphor for power” and summed up the legacy of racism in this country. What more could Peck say than Baldwin hadn’t?
“Baldwin is one of the most precise scholars in American society,” said Peck in a video interview from his home in Paris. “If you didn’t get the message, it means there is no hope for you.”
The film won over a dozen film awards and an Oscar nomination for best documentary. In addition to the awards and rave reviews, “I’m Not Your Negro” sparked a revival of interest in Baldwin’s work that continues to this day. After last summer’s protests against Black Lives Matter, the writer’s work seems to be more relevant than ever. Nonetheless, Peck said, “I was amazed that people could go on living their lives as if nothing had happened. As if these words didn’t exist. “
The realization prompted Peck to uncover the roots of what Baldwin had written and spoken about so eloquently and passionately: the story of racism, violence and hatred in the West. “What was the origin story of all of this?” Peck said he was surprised. “Where did all the ideology of white supremacy begin?”
This quest is at the center of Peck’s latest project, “Exterminate All the Brutes,” an extremely ambitious, deeply essayistic endeavor that combines archival material, clips from Hollywood films, script scenes, and animated sequences. The four-part series, which premieres on Wednesday on HBO Max, shows the history of Western racism, colonialism and genocide, from the Spanish Inquisition and Columbus’ “discovery” of already populated areas to the stories of the Atlantic slave trade, the massacre on the Wounded Knee and the Holocaust.
For Peck, who incorporates his own story into the film with voice-overs, snapshots and home videos, the project is a very personal one. In many ways, he’s the ideal person to tell a story about western colonialism: after growing up in Haiti, a former colony that gained independence in 1804, he and his family moved to the Democratic Republic at the age of 8 Congo His parents worked for the newly liberated government. He has also lived and worked in New York, West Berlin and Paris and made films about the Haitian Revolution (“Moloch Tropical”) and the murdered Congolese politician Patrice Lumumba (“Lumumba: Death of a Prophet”).
“I think my soul is kind of Haitian,” he said, “but I’ve been influenced by all the places I’ve been.”
Peck started thinking about “Exterminate” in 2017 after Richard Plepler, then chairman of HBO, “cursed” him “for 10 minutes” for not adding “I’m not your negro” to his network, and then gave him a charter had offered for his next project.
“We worked on several film ideas, both documentaries and feature films,” said Rémi Grellety, Peck’s producer for 13 years. “And Raoul said, ‘Let’s bring Richard the hardest idea.'”
The film, they told Plepler in a two-page pitch, would be based on the 1992 book “Exterminate All the Brutes” by historian Sven Lindqvist, a mixture of story and travelogue, in which Joseph Conrad’s novella “Heart of Darkness” was used as a jump off show to trace Europe’s racist past in Africa. (“Exterminate all beasts” are the last words we hear from Kurtz, Conrad’s ivory trade “demigod”.) It would be about that, but also about a lot more, many of which hadn’t quite worked out yet.
“There were a lot of ideas on this course,” recalled Grellety.
After dismantling Lindqvist’s book, Peck found that he needed a similar text on the history of the genocide in the United States. He came across “The History of the Indigenous Peoples of the United States”, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s American Book Award-winning study of this country’s centuries of war against its indigenous people, and was “thrilled.” Peck and Dunbar-Ortiz talked at length about their book and film and how the two could get together.
Many of the film’s most powerful scenes come from Dunbar-Ortiz’s text, including an animated sequence showing Alexis de Tocqueville’s account of Choctaws crossing the Mississippi in 1831 on what is known as the trail of tears. When their dogs notice they are being left behind, they “howl somberly” and jump in vain into the icy waters of the Mississippi to follow.
“I almost cry just thinking about it now,” said Dunbar-Ortiz. “And in the movie that shows it in animation, I think it will make a lot of people cry.”
To top it off, Peck turned to the work of his Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot, who died in 2012. Peck was moved by a central idea in Trouillot’s book “Silencing the Past: The Power and Production of History”. : that “history is the fruit of power”, coined and told (or not) by the winners.
“That is the history of Europe,” said Peck. “Europe has to tell the story of the last 600 years.”
Throughout the series, Peck defeated a number of sacred cows, including the explorer Henry Morton Stanley (“a murderer”); Winston Churchill, who, as a young war correspondent, described the slaughter of thousands of Muslim troops at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898 as a “great game”; and even the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum, who advocated the extermination of Native Americans after the Wounded Knee massacre.
One of its most frequent targets is Donald Trump, whom the film compares to bigots throughout history through a series of powerful juxtapositions. “I’m an immigrant from a shitty country,” says Peck at one point, one of several references in the series to Trump’s racist rhetoric.
To create a “new vehicle that makes you feel the real world,” Peck filmed several scenes starring Josh Hartnett as a 19th century Army officer (loosely based on Quartermaster General Thomas Sidney Jesup), a racist Everyman who reappears in the course of history, hangs blacks and shoots Indians. Hartnett met Peck years ago on a failed film project and later in Cannes, and the two had become friends.
“He called me last year and said he wanted a white American actor to play the tip of the genocidal sword in Western history and he was thinking of me,” Hartnett said. “I thought, wow, that’s flattering.”
“I’ve known him for 20 years,” said Peck, “and that’s how I knew I could have this conversation with him.”
Last March, Hartnett and the rest of the cast and crew traveled to the Dominican Republic to film the live-action scenes. Places around the island state stood for Florida and the Belgian Congo. Then the pandemic hit and shut down the night before production began. Peck considered what to do and moved the whole shoot closer to home.
“We were in the south of France in the summer,” said Hartnett. “So it wasn’t a bad situation.”
Through metatextual moments and manipulations, Peck creates his own counterbalance to the dominant Western version of the story, forcing viewers to ponder the popular and academic narratives they have received throughout their lives. In one scene, Hartnett’s character shoots an indigenous woman (Caisa Ankarsparre) just to show that she is an actress on a film set. In another instance, a 19th century Anglican clergyman gives a lecture in which humanity is divided into the “wild races” (Africans), the “semi-civilized” (Chinese) and the “civilized” – full of contemporary audiences colored people.
At the beginning of the series, Peck explains, “There are no alternative facts.” But he also seems to recognize the selectivity of all historical narratives and the power to control the image by examining deeper truths in some scenes by asking the viewer to to imagine what history might be like if things had turned out differently. In one scene, white families are tied up, whipped and marched through the jungle. In another case, Columbus’ landing party was slaughtered on the beaches of what is now Haiti in 1492.
“I will do whatever I can to get these points across,” said Peck.
A longtime filmmaker and film lover, Peck filled his series with film clips to illustrate Hollywood’s creative re-engineering of history (John Wayne in the 1960s “The Alamo”) and to complement his arguments. (In a scene that is played for laughter, Harrison Ford shoots an Arab with a scimitar in Raiders of the Lost Ark.)
One of the most disturbing clips in the series – no small matter – comes from an otherwise carefree Hollywood musical: “On the Town” (1949). In the scene, Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Ann Miller and others cavort in an apparently lecturer-free natural history museum, sing in mock African gibberish, dress up as indigenous Americans and skip “War Whoops” and attack as South Pacific “natives”. ”In the melody“ Prehistoric Man ”the dance number unites a cave-conscious caveman -“ a happy monkey without English cloths ”- with Indians, Africans and islanders in the Pacific.
“When I saw it, I said, ‘No, my God, that’s not possible,” said Peck. “It’s as if you knew I was making this film. It just existed and passed on.”
Unsurprisingly, it was difficult to get rights to some of the clips. “We didn’t lie,” said Grellety. “We reached out to people and said the title was ‘Exterminate All Brutes’. So you knew it wasn’t a romantic comedy. “In some cases, filmmakers had to secure the clips through fair use – like with“ Prehistoric Man ”.
Peck may not have seen himself in the films he saw as a young boy in Haiti, but he uses these Hollywood clips to retell the history of the West. This process of imaginative recovery was no accident.
“I was born in a world where I didn’t create everything in front of me,” he said. “But I can make sure that I use everything I can to show that the world you think is not the world it is.
“And these Hollywood films, these archive folders, these are windows that they didn’t know were left open.”