In ‘Exterminate All the Brutes,’ Raoul Peck Powerfully Traces the Bloody History of Colonialism to Who We Are Today

The great Jewish-German critic Walter Benjamin once wrote as the storm clouds of World War II gathered, “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” This is perfectly captured by “Exterminate All the Brutes,” a sweeping and searing new documentary by Raoul Peck. A cinematic scholar and radical, Peck traces the history of colonialism and imperialism, linking it all to the development of racist ideas, and finally casts this history as a mirror to our own times. This is no easy feat and few will question why the Haitian filmmaker needed to spread the material out into four parts. Through history and cultural criticism, Peck sheds light on how the world as we know it came to be.

The scope in itself is massive, but it has to be. Peck is deconstructing our official cultural narratives and gazes at unsettling truths. He chooses his title from a book by Swedish writer Sven Lindqvist, which focuses on colonial violence and how it would later influence horrors like the Holocaust. Lindqvist in turn took the title from a phrase in Joseph Conrad’s classic novel “Heart of Darkness.” From this starting point, Peck combines stock footage, historical photographs and dramatized scenes and goes back to the start, when Europe finds what would later be named the American continent, in 1492. Long before that European societies had already begun wars of domination with the Crusades where religion was used as an excuse to target lucrative trade routes dominated by Muslim countries. Once colonization of the New World commenced, so did a vicious extermination of the indigenous population. From what is now the U.S. down to South America, the empires of Spain, Portugal, England and others began plundering and soon bringing over slaves from Africa. Also contributing as inspiration and guides are Michel-Rolph Trouillot, author of “Silencing the Past” and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, author of the groundbreaking “An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States.”

This is generally a history most of us know on a superficial level. But Peck goes deeper into it as a living truth beyond just facts and figures. He frames colonialism and the building of nation states as a human story full of much injustice and blood-soaked despair, at least for the colonized. Peck has directed both dramas and documentaries, many obsessed with history and its tragic or heroic figures. His 2016 “I Am Not Your Negro” used the words of author James Baldwin to explore the Black American experience through the evolution of American culture and film. He followed it in 2017 with the underappreciated “The Young Karl Marx,” which recovered the Communist thinker as an Enlightenment radical interpreting the world around him. And before that Peck had already made powerful films like “Lumumba,” about the great Congolese leader assassinated by the CIA. Peck is one of the remaining heirs of a radical cinematic tradition that includes Costa-Gavras and Oliver Stone. He says early in “Exterminate All the Brutes” that it is impossible to be neutral, and recent history proves he might be right. For him history is also personal, starting with his friendship with Lindqvist, who he describes in terms akin to an adventurer who dismisses skin color and language barriers, preferring to seek truth, no matter how dark the journey becomes.

What makes the journey even more powerful is how Peck uses the tools of cultural criticism and personal narrative to connect his wider themes with our everyday lives. The ascendance of white supremacist movements and anti-immigration paranoia, both in the U.S. and in Europe, can be traced back to the excuses empires used for conquest. Peck details how racist ideology was necessary for countries to justify genocide and land-grabbing. Once settlers deemed indigenous communities as inferior it was easy to shift into displacing and starving entire nations, and once 18th and 19th century thinkers began developing racial science, it was all conveniently used to enslave Africans and instill stereotype views still present today. Peck jumps around history while turning pop culture on itself. When he discusses the extermination of America’s indigenous peoples he uses clips from heroic westerns, or the buffalo hunt in “Dances with Wolves.” A section on the Battle of the Alamo, where he ventures into its mythology and the way the Mexican side is misrepresented opens with romanticized movies about the subject. The winners in history always write the story, adjusting and re-framing it. In a moment of potent lucidity, Peck observes how for most societies, admitting the truth about the origin of their nation state can be too much to bear. But we can’t look away.

To truly get many of the rich ideas in this docuseries across, Peck also utilizes dramatic scenes, most with Josh Hartnett embodying various characters representing the stages of white colonialism. In one narrative Harnett is a U.S. Army sergeant taking part in the subjugation of the Seminole nation, in another he’s a Belgian colonist brutally carrying out repression on the Congolese population, including hand amputations on those who don’t meet the work standards of their invaders. Shocking history but all too true, and for any doubters Peck includes photographs of such atrocities. This trail of tears is what links us all in the modern world. Peck uses his own autobiography to show this history’s continuing roots. Peck is Haitian and was able to study in Germany and indulge in European democracy and education, yet he was always aware of coming from a country long tortured by imperialism. One of the docuseries’ great passages recalls how the Haitian Revolution of 1791 was the only real egalitarian spawn of the French Revolution. But the ideals being touted in France were not allowed to flourish in a colony where the slaves rose up and demanded emancipation. Independence for Haiti would come with a price including imposed isolation and economic ruin. The first truly free republic of the Americas would lay the seeds of the greater Latin American revolutions, yet little credit is given to this day. The last time U.S. Marines landed in Haiti to support a coup was as recent as 2004.

When we discuss racism and the irrational idea that skin color somehow determines worth or intelligence, it is easy to miss the grander scope of how such ideas came to be. “Exterminate All the Brutes,” doesn’t let anyone off the hook. Once Charles Darwin’s theories were distorted by others into the racist practice of “Social Darwinism” and eugenics, a mentality spread further that Peck convincingly argues helped fuel the thinking of men like Adolf Hitler. The Holocaust remains a supreme crime in the annals of human history, but it was an outgrowth of a wider human tendency of seeing each other as different or lesser. Consider that Hitler was aware of the long American history of genocide, and his own plans for the invasion of the Soviet Union were not that different from a classic colonial blueprint. Fittingly the final moments of the documentary gaze at the haunted remains of Auschwitz. As a filmmaker Peck is a true internationalist who sees our artificial borders and labels for what they are, figments of our imaginations, created to find an excuse to be ruthless and keep consuming. The classic era of colonialism may be over, but we continue to go to war, we continue to harbor prejudices conditioned by absurd perceptions. Such prejudices are not harmless, but deadly as our history littered with bones proves. Peck is educating his audience with this film, and by showing our most horrible truths, he hopes we can learn from them or face more catastrophes.

Exterminate All the Brutes” begins streaming April 7 on HBO Max.