Late into Exterminate All the Brutes, filmmaker Raoul Peck’s new docuseries on HBO, Peck inserts one of many bits of miscellaneous footage, this one of a notorious SpaceX stunt from 2018: An astronaut floats through space, driving a Tesla Roadster in lieu of a spaceship. Earth looms in the background, massive and awesome. “This is the scope of our story,” Peck’s voice-over intones. He isn’t exaggerating in the slightest.
Exterminate All the Brutes takes on a dizzying array of subjects and themes, including but not limited to: the Holocaust, human rights abuses in colonial Congo, Christopher Columbus, the triangle trade, the genocide of Native Americans, the American military-industrial complex, eugenics, and the very concept of history. In the end, Peck’s goal is nothing less than outlining the foundational role of white supremacy in establishing the current world order, all in just four hour-long episodes. To explore this wide range of topics, Peck utilizes an equally broad spectrum of modes: decontextualized clips like the astronaut’s voyage; animation; reenactments, many starring actor Josh Hartnett as a sort of avatar for state-sanctioned racism; excerpts from films, including some of Peck’s own; and memoir.
The series takes its title from a 1992 book by Swedish author Sven Lindqvist, a personal friend of Peck’s before his death in 2019. Lindqvist’s original work largely focused on European atrocities in Africa as a predecessor to the more recent horrors of the Holocaust. (The title derives from a journal entry attributed to the murderous trader Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.) But Peck’s “adaptation,” in the loosest sense, actually draws on three separate texts. In addition to Lindqvist, Peck also cites Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, which inverts the typical lens of American national identity. And he largely borrows his framework from Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, which gives the show its de facto thesis: “History is the fruit of power.”
Such a daunting stack of source material sounds unwieldy as the blueprint for a TV show, and it is. But Peck keeps Exterminate All the Brutes’ ambition from spiraling into aimlessness with a secret ingredient: himself. On its face, an individual projecting themselves onto world history, and vice versa, sounds borderline narcissistic. It’s a concern Peck addresses up front: “Why do I bring myself into this story? Where do I fit into it?” he asks. Yet Peck’s biography gradually reveals itself as a case study in the show’s world-historical themes, which explains why he’s so drawn to them. Born in Haiti, the site of a seismic slave revolt in the late 18th century, Peck and his parents later moved to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he observed firsthand the postcolonial disaster wrought by centuries of exploitation. (He went on to make a film about the country’s first—and later assassinated—prime minister, Patrice Lumumba.) As an adult, Peck spent 15 years in Berlin, where the shadow of fascism is inescapable; he now lives in Paris, another capital of culture built on resources plundered from elsewhere.
When reflected through Peck’s biography, the melting pot of ideas in Exterminate All the Brutes starts to cohere into a consistent argument. If history is written by the winners, Trouillot’s thinking goes, then our dominant narratives inevitably erase and marginalize the losers—a bias Peck sets out to correct. Here, the westward expansion taught in American classrooms as the Manifest Destiny is illustrated as a map of Native tribes literally devoured by colonies, territories, and states. Europeans’ aptitude for “long-distance killing”—developing firearms and sea travel before civilizations that were, in other respects, far more technologically advanced—is linked to America’s current role as the arms merchant of the world. Like historian Jared Diamond in the groundbreaking Guns, Germs, and Steel, Peck has the mind to note these innovations are largely the result of geography and happenstance, not innate skill.
This can be dry, heavy stuff, and it’s true that watching an episode of Exterminate All the Brutes can leave the viewer with the same mental exhaustion as reading an especially dense tome. But Peck is careful to avoid making the show a monotonous delivery device for pure information. “This is a story,” he reminds us in the first episode, “not a contribution to historical research.” Exterminate All the Brutes eschews the talking heads and straightforward style of the typical docuseries, opting instead for a more artful approach. Even the reenactments are a far cry from the History Channel. The show’s opening scene identifies the actress playing a Native woman by name before panning out to reveal a full film crew, face masks and all. (The pandemic both delayed and relocated production for the series’ original footage.) Hartnett recurs as a Spanish soldier, an overseer in the Congo, and an American army officer, underscoring the constancy of white supremacy through a series of scripted vignettes.
Peck is the director behind I Am Not Your Negro, the 2016 documentary exploring James Baldwin through the lens of an unfinished manuscript. (Samuel L. Jackson stood in for the late author via voice-over.) Like that film, Exterminate All the Brutes has mixed success in translating the literary to the cinematic. When either Jackson or Peck delivers an especially knotty line—“How much can we reduce what has happened to what is said to have happened?”—it’s hard not to wish you had something tangible on the page to underline and analyze, rather than moving directly to the next scene.
But when it clicks into place, Exterminate All the Brutes finds a novel way to deliver what’s becoming an increasingly widespread message in the 21st century. The ideas in the show aren’t new, even if they do bear repeating: Of the three books Peck works from, the most recent is nearly seven years old, and the oldest about 29. What Exterminate All the Brutes adds is a certain lyricism, both in juxtaposing unlikely elements—a reference to Tom Cruise’s turn in Magnolia as Frank T.J. Mackey comes up when you least expect it—and Peck’s own inventions. In one scene, a 19th-century Englishman delivers a nakedly racist lecture rooted in so-called social Darwinism. Then the camera reveals his audience: a group of listeners in obviously contemporary clothes, many of them people of color.
Earlier this week, Ken Burns’s latest opus premiered on PBS, a three-part tribute to the life and works of Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway makes for an instructive contrast with Exterminate All the Brutes, and not just because Burns’s style is exactly the objective, interview-based MO Peck so adamantly avoids. Burns is a deeply conscientious director, and takes pains to recontextualize his subject outside the macho myth Hemingway built around himself. Peck, on the other hand, doesn’t bother to tweak our inherited canon. He wants to tear it down and replace it with a harsher, bloodier image of the forces that shape our lives. Exterminate All the Brutes is at once epic in scope and intimate in focus, held together by the strength of Peck’s vision. One series alone can’t rewrite history, but it can attempt to serve as a rallying cry.