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“Exterminate All the Brutes” rewrites the history books

Exterminate All the Brutes (HBO)

Raoul Peck’s latest project is a dizzying, informative, frequently overwhelming rejoinder to the history of white supremacy and imperialism.

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Following on from his work on I Am Not Your Negro, Raoul Peck takes a holistic look at imperialism, the construction of whiteness, and how we form narratives about the violence of the past in HBO’s four-part documentary series Exterminate All The Brutes. In doing so, Peck covers a lot of ground, moving from genocides to scientific racism to colonization and more, explicating the links between them all. He does a lot of brilliant work here, but the series doesn’t quite have the precision or focus to make it great. 

There’s a lot going on in this docu-series — historical analysis and parallels with the present, all presented with a dizzying mix of documentary, live-action, animated segments, and more. Peck also discusses how narrative is created in filmmaking (through clips from films like Apocalypse Now and The Legend of Tarzan), then parallels that with the history it echoes. On top of that, there are recreations and various sections where Peck gets autobiographical about his own life — he moves from his desire to be a boy scout, to the military power of the colonists, to the rise and resurgence of fascism. Most of this is interesting, but the sprawling nature of Peck’s approach means that the doc’s mission statement becomes muddled, lacking the incisiveness it needs to elevate the material. 

To his credit, Peck gives us a strong, comprehensive overview of imperialism and whiteness; he doesn’t sugarcoat any of it and lays bare the cruelty of the colonists in excruciating detail. At times though, he’s overzealous in showing that cruelty. He’s already made his point, but we still get more and more fictionalized images of the bodies of people who have had horrendous violence exacted upon them. In fact, we also get documentary footage of this violence, including the killings of unarmed Black men and Vietnamese civilians. At a certain point, this overuse of real-life violence begins to feel more like a shock tactic than an actual moving display of the cruelty at hand. 

Exterminate All the Brutes (HBO)
Exterminate All the Brutes (HBO)

Despite that, Peck successfully draws lines from one end of the painful history of oppression to another — like when he links the original colonizer-run concentration camps to the Nazi death camps, through to internment camps and the Southern border regime. While he’s very deliberate about not drawing equivalences, the parallels on display are powerful. He also digs into how the dominant culture shapes narratives across history, weaving in different pieces of pop culture (Joe Cocker songs, Triumph of the Will, even Jurassic Park 3) to effectively demonstrate his points.

The one glaring gap is the lack of material analysis. Peck talks a lot about greed and profit in the abstract, but never zones in on the specific economic systems at play — the word ‘capitalism’ only comes up but once. It’s disappointing because his analysis on the formation of whiteness is deep and precise, but instead of applying that sharpness to the economic end of the spectrum, he simply pontificates vaguely about the human condition.

Weaved throughout this analysis are narrative recreations of historical events, but with some twists and reframing. They’re a mixed bag; on the one hand, Peck does some interesting manipulation of time, like when a eugenicist delivers a speech about the supremacy of the white race, but we pull back to see he’s not speaking to his contemporaries, but to an audience full of POC who immediately heckle him. You can find a satisfying vindication in the mocking of these historical giants, which reinforces his broader point that history isn’t a singular, linear narrative.

Peck successfully draws lines from one end of the painful history of oppression to another.

On the other hand, the recreations also allow Peck to indulge some of his worst habits, like the aforementioned simulations of violence against people of color, from hangings to gunshots, which stops being effective and starts feeling exhausting instead. Peck also tries for a Heart of Darkness parallel in the fictionalized segments, courtesy of a series of imperialist characters throughout history (all played by Josh Hartnett) — they’re decently acted but feel unnecessary. At one point, we even get a “what if the slaves were white” thought experiment that’s deeply silly and treads more into vague questions of the human condition rather than precise analysis. 

Peck’s autobiographical sections also feel a little inconsistent. At some points they prove useful, providing a personal element to the discussions of Haiti and the USA’s complicity in propping up the dictatorial regime of Jean-Claude Duvalier in the 1970s. However, a lot of the time these moments feel ancillary, especially in a docu-series that is already overloaded. 

Even with the doc’s many flaws, it’s hard to deny that there’s some great technical work going into the production. Phillipe Aubry’s visual effects are striking, capturing the scale of the violence and exploitation of marginalized people with remarkable alacrity. Additionally, Peck incorporates some beautiful, lightly animated artwork throughout. The visual work means that, even when you feel lost, you’re never completely disengaged. 

Exterminate All The Brutes is a messy series that isn’t sharp enough to fulfill its potential. However, there’s still enough great work, particularly on the construction of whiteness and narrative, that you’ll get something important from it.

Exterminate All the Brutes premieres April 6th on HBO.

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Oluwatayo Adewole

Tayo is a writer, poet and frequent nerd from London. They're interested in the way that art, and film specifically, interact with and challenge society. He's also obsessed with Hot Fuzz. You'll most likely find them rambling about film/politics/stanning Jharrel Jerome @naijaprince21 on Twitter. You can also see his poetry @tayowrites on Instagram