HBO's doc "Exterminate All the Brutes" asks: "When was America great — and who was it great for?"

"I Am Not Your Negro" director Raoul Peck spoke to Salon about the history of white supremacy, slavery & genocide

Published April 7, 2021 5:05PM (EDT)

Caisa Ankarsparre in "Exterminate All the Brutes" (Velvet Film/David Koskas/HBO)
Caisa Ankarsparre in "Exterminate All the Brutes" (Velvet Film/David Koskas/HBO)

Raoul Peck's ("I Am Not Your Negro") extraordinary four-hour documentary, "Exterminate All the Brutes" — airing on HBO April 7 and 8 in two-hour segments — addresses themes of civilization, colonization, and extermination as it traces history and genocides around the world. This is, Peck explains in his forceful narration, a story of greed and power; land, labor, and enslavement; and most notably, white supremacy

The episodes hopscotch across time. The series opens with a white man (Josh Hartnett) taking the Seminole Indian Land in a reenactment scene. As Peck journeys through history, he features images ranging from films ("Apocalypse Now," "Shoah" among others); news clips that show stories such as the recent rise of racial hate in Sweden; Peck family home movies from Brooklyn, the Belgian Congo, and Haiti. In addition, footage of Hitler, (from Eva Braun's home movies), is interspersed with scenes of the German-American Bund rally at Madison Square Garden in 1939. 

Moreover, maps illustrate the slave trade and the millions of Africans sent to the Americas where they were exploited. And Peck presents a history lesson about Andrew Jackson, broken treaties with Indian tribes, and the subsequent Trails of Tears. One of the best sequences is at the start of Part 3, which recounts "killing from a distance" and shows the "industrial development of firearms." "Exterminate All the Brute" addresses imperialism and "the stubborn privilege of superiority." 

The culminating force of these case studies is to show how white men have had "God-like" power in trying to "civilize" and colonize savages and strike fear into the hearts and minds of the Other. And, because the white men hold the power, they get to write the official (hi)story. 

With "Exterminate All the Brutes" — the title comes from Sven Lindqvist's book as well as being a quote from Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" — Peck rallies against this form of racism and inequality. He tells a compelling story that makes the viewer wish he was their history teacher in school.

Peck recently spoke via Zoom with Salon about his new film. 

Your purpose in this film is to deconstruct the dominant narrative as well as the historical silences — because history is written by the victors. Can you talk about your approach to this series and how you selected the examples you did from history to make your case?

This work is built on the work of many other scholars, and they have been working on those topics for many years. It reflects a totally new and different way to apprehend history, genocide, colonialization, and decolonization. They address it not from the usual central and Eurocentric point of view. This shifts the point of view, and it adapts to my own way of seeing the world. I never felt I was exclusively an immigrant in America, or France, or the Congo. 

It was clearer for me and for others to understand what, in fact, is going on today. It's a film about today. It's not looking back at 600 years of history. I thought this should be a very heavy blow to a certain view of history, and American history in particular. In fact, it was not, because the monster has so many different heads, and numerous other heads are popping up every day. The confusion and the cacophony are so great, it's hard to address just one. It took me a few months to wrap my head around it. I had to dig deeper. I had to go beyond and draw a bigger canvas and go further back to understand where all this began.

The most pregnant racist ideology developed in the 19th century, which is yesterday. It's not 800 years ago. You go back 600 years ago, and you learn more about those "warriors" defending Christianity and killing vast numbers of Muslims and Jews. You say, "Whoa!" It didn't start in the last century. It's part of the bigger story. I had to address the very foundation of the conquering European mind and go to the roots of everything. That was this bold project. The book that summarized what I thought was Sven Lindqvist's. He had a keen and complex and precise analysis not only of what he saw but also his own life. This language is close to what I do, which is use one's self and experiences to understand the world around me. He makes it more organic. That way of telling stories is what I do. 

Your talk in your narration about bringing yourself into the story. What made you incorporate your personal story into this larger history? 

There is a phrase in the film, "Neutrality cannot be an option." We cannot be facing this avalanche of dominating narrative for so many years. As a filmmaker, I hope some critic will see or understand what it means to recreate more than 600 years of history without owning your own images. Having to use a vast majority of images made by the "other side" — if I can say it like this. I have to deconstruct every element. I can't afford to be neutral and examine every piece in a cold way. We are beyond that. We know how certain approaches have been hidden behind scientific terminologies. It is a very complex way of finding my own path, and every piece is suspect. I have to find a way to tell my story and use whatever material I can get my hands on. I have no choice; I have to engage. Otherwise, there is no film. I can't wait another multiple 100 years for a Black or Native American archive. We don't have that, that determined the approach.  

I went through an experiment when I made the documentary "Lumumba: La mort du prophète" in 1991. At the time, I was living in Berlin. As a documentary filmmaker, it was a no-no to speak about yourself. Later everyone is telling their own story. In literature and art, it's the same, but at the time, specifically in the political sense, we were a generation that believed in collective action and changing of society. To put the personal at the forefront of your work was a risk, but I took the risk because it was not about my own story, but about the bigger story. The personal story was the way to bring you in and show you some sincerity, and build trust, so you believed me. I had to be naked. I took that approach to this project as well. 

Josh Hartnett in "Exterminate All the Brutes" (HBO)

Can you talk about the Josh Hartnett character who plays the "white man" in each episode and is at the heart of various conflicts with Indigenous and Black/African people in the series? 

You see how the story is told from multiple points of view, but I needed a cement that would thread another epic story through the four episodes, and I knew that I had to do that through scripted narrative to have greater control over that. I am trying to get you inside the story. I can't have you as a spectator, or an observer from above. Otherwise, you can't follow the thread of my analogies and the dramatic past I am trying to trace. Josh's character developed during the process. 

There is a real character, who was an officer who was sent by Andrew Jackson to take care of the Seminoles in Florida, and he is known to be an incredible murderer. That's the same type of murderer we found in the colonization of Africa. And some we recognize as such, and others not as much, like [Henry Morton] Stanley. A lot of those explorers were ruthless. They wrote their own publicity, and their own book. But no one went to see what the price of this was. You see that throughout history. They are one of the tools of imperialism. They have no emotion, and they just do their jobs. They are good soldiers — enforcers. I didn't want this black-and- white kind of character [with Hartnett]. I needed to give him a dramatic, emotional curve. He realizes he has done too much killing and is starting to see ghosts. There are too many dead bodies. That story is clear enough. We met this character in "Heart of Darkness," and that same adventurer character is in "Apocalypse Now." It's about a person who accepted having to do things, and in the end, has to make a decision about that. It could be any of us. At what point do you take responsibility?

"Exterminate All the Brutes" shows how wealth and power enabled annihilation, and this (plus land and labor) is at the root of white supremacy. You state that knowledge can be profitable for genocide; we knew what was happening, and yet it was allowed to happen. What surprised you in this deep dive into history?

I have to make sure that people understand that they are not observers, they are also actors. Each one of the people whose work I used, says the same thing. We already know enough. That's a leitmotif. How and when do you act on what you know? Every genocide is documented. They have clear patterns. They happen in ancient and in new times. One of the biggest ones happened in the middle of Europe. What else do you need? The famous phrase, "Never again!" What did we do with it? This is mind-blowing.

That's the contradiction, and I hope people have the perspective of so many hundred years. The way people see thing now, everything is so quick. Genocide in Rwanda. Next! Genocide in the former Yugoslavia. Ok, Next!  You can use the perspective of the long arm of history. If you don't have that longer arm you can't understand who you are or where you are. We live in a civilization where you live by the day or the minute. You see Twitter and one little part of your brain is working. You need the next fix and are watching the phone every second. Only with the distance do you understand where you are. That's what the film is doing. It's putting down the matrix, and asking, "How can you not see this?" If you don't see this, there's no hope for you. The same way [James] Baldwin said, "You can say whatever you want about the American Dream, but as long as you don't recognize that it started on genocide, and the second genocide of American slavery, there cannot be a dream — or you are dreaming." We have such an arrogance of domination.

America was ostensibly founded on freedom, democracy and equality for all, but those ideas are difficult to reconcile with the dominant race committing genocide, settler colonialism, and empire. You ask, "When was American great —and who was it great for?" 

Was it great for every citizen on your soil? That's the first question. I don't want to live in a world where it's just great for a minority — or even a majority. My role as a human being is to make sure everyone has a fair chance and a fair life. That's our goal when we talk about justice, equality, and happiness for all. For all! The very slogan, "Make America Great Again" is so absurd, and it was used by many other presidents. 

You challenge viewers at the end of one episode to describe the flag, which is a symbol of life, race, and patriotism, something to die for, something to kill for, in two words. What two words would you use?

I'm the last person to ask that question. I'm so unpatriotic. I've seen too many things happen because of a flag. It's a symbol. What does that symbol represent? What comes behind that symbol? What are you prepared to do for that symbol? I could never fight for a flag. I can fight for people, or a just cause. A flag, for me, is like a uniform, to recognize what is around you. It reminds you of people dying for that flag. For me, living in a community, my first thought is not let's find a flag. It's let's find a way to communicate with each other and take care of each other. That's what is important. That's my same problem with the church! We put so much energy in it, and it's all symbolic. It's meant to keep people in line. I have a personal hesitation to all this. 

Then, of course, America put a flag on the moon . . . 

The very idea of the theory of discovery . . . Arriving at America was an incredible moment. The whole planet shifted. For the first time, you could say, I put my feet here, and it belongs to me. I put a flag down. That never happened before. Everything became upside down.

"Exterminate All the Brutes" premieres Wednesday, April 7 at 9 p.m. with two back-to-back episodes, followed by an additional two episodes Thursday, April 8 at 9 p.m. on HBO. All four installments will be available to stream on HBO Max on April 7 beginning at 9 p.m.

By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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Exterminate All The Brutes Genocide Hbo Interview Raoul Peck White Supremacy