Raoul Peck on Chronicling Our Colonial Past in His Searing HBO Docuseries ‘Exterminate All the Brutes’

Few directors can truly be called internationalist to the level of Raoul Peck. His journey as an artist and thinker is a collection of work that tells unknown or underground histories, from various countries and languages, that somehow binds us all together as a human collective. Following the success of his Oscar-nominated 2016 documentary “I Am Not Your Negro” about author James Baldwin, Peck’s latest work is a true opus, a docuseries titled “Exterminate All the Brutes” now streaming in four parts on HBO Max. In the series, Peck chronicles with immense depth humanity’s colonial history, and how the European conquest of the Americas and Africa helped birth the racist ideologies or modes of thought still plaguing us today. It is also a very personal work for Peck, who frames this grand and terrible history with his own story as a Haitian filmmaker who grew up in radical times. Another personal angle is how the docuseries is based on the book of the same name by Peck’s late friend Sven Lindqvist, a Swede who was determined to trace the roots of fascist thinking to colonial history. For Lindqvist, and Peck, the road to Auschwitz was paved by the brutality of European domination and racist “science.” Peck recently spoke with Entertainment Voice about the making of this astounding work.

“Exterminate All the Brutes” is one of your biggest projects to date in terms of scope. When did you decide it was time to tell this history in this way?

I feel like I didn’t have a choice. I came out of a very long period of work, of nurturing the film “I Am Not Your Negro.” I watched that film explode everywhere. It played on every continent with great discussions but still, I felt that something was still missing. There was still too much denial. Not that I expected the world to be transformed from one day to the other, but just from meeting people who are the gatekeepers, the intellectual gatekeepers, or even journalists, it was eye-opening. To give one example: I had an interview with a major French newspaper and most of the questions were, “wow, oh my god, how bad are the Americans?!” And this as France is itself in the middle of a great catastrophe in terms of race relations, or you could say religion relations, when it comes to Islam. It was crazy. I’m not talking about ignorance from people on the streets, but from people who should know. So that’s why the leitmotif that comes across constantly in the film is that it’s not knowledge that we lack. It’s what we do with it. Why do we keep it on the side? It should be in the middle of your thoughts, because the whole planet is paying the price.

Yes, and you explore in the docuseries the idea of American exceptionalism. We kind of know about our genocidal history of colonialism here but then we pretend that Trump was just some aberration, some fluke. 

Yeah! Once you take a little bit of distance and not just look at your life, or the last 20 years, or five years –– and think in terms of 100 years. Trump is not an abomination. He’s just one type, more modern, but still very conservative, of what we’ve seen before. I remember when Silvio Berlusconi in Italy began to make noise some people were like, “oh my god!” But we had already seen that before. Berlusconi was a carbon copy almost of Mussolini. Even the body language is weird in the same way. In fact, all of those men, the body language is similar in a way. It’s like power makes them crazy. Their recourse is the same style of gestures. So I want to sit back and look at the entire history. That’s what I wanted to do, to look at the core of that history, the origin. When did it start? When did race become a structural issue, a state-sponsored issue? It goes back to the Crusades and then on through the racist terror of the 19th century. It was important to put the whole cadaver on the table so nobody could say, “I only see the hand or the foot, but not the head.” Here is the whole body. We can dissect history now and see the whole story. I’m fed up with the continuous discussion. It’s easy nowadays to avoid the whole story. The world is so complex and lacks foundation. Two, three generations before us, before you were accepted in the intellectual world, you really had to show you knew your books. Today, anybody can take an iPhone and tweet whatever they felt in the morning waking up. And suddenly whatever they tweet has the same importance as what a scientist working 50 years of his life researching discovered about the same issue.

The late Italian author Umberto Eco said something about that, how social media now gives what people used to ramble about at a bar after a few drinks the same prominence as a Nobel Prize winner. He called it “the age of the idiot.”

(Laughs) Exactly! It goes out all over the world!

But at the same time it is reassuring to see how a docuseries like this is now finding a home at a major studio like HBO. Is it because of the way culture is changing thanks to recent activist movements?

Yeah, but that’s not the whole story. People always tell me, “How did they let you make that film?” You could’ve said the same about “I Am Not Your Negro,” which I had to finance myself a long time before I could sell it. If I had gone to any network back then they would’ve said no. That’s the story of my life. My first documentary I financed bit by bit and that’s what gave me more freedom. The story of “Exterminate All the Brutes” is the result of a friendship. It started as a collaboration with Richard Plepler, who had been president of HBO at the time. He’s left since then. But I knew him from when I made another ambitious project, “Sometimes in April,” about Rwanda, where HBO again showed another side to its studio. They had also bought my film “Lumumba,” which was the first time HBO bought a Black foreign movie. Then they offered me the Rwanda film and I was able to go shoot in the center of Africa. So I had a long history with them. They let me just make “Exterminate All the Brutes,” they did not interfere, and that was thanks to Richard who said from the get-go, “what do you want to do?” And I told him I was thinking about it and needed money to start, to pay some scholars and he said, “Ok you can have all this.” By the time he left the project was on track they respected my work. The film was so complex. I worked every day on it. Sometimes people have a view of studios as if they’re a barricade. But there are moments where you can find allies and you can find a political space where something is possible. You just have to be attentive and know how to deal with it. It’s a great time now to do very ambitious stuff. It doesn’t mean they’ll accept everything. But now is the time to knock down the doors. But I’ve also been doing that all my life. Big Brother is not always totally Big Brother.

When you then do a project like “Exterminate All the Brutes,” which combines cultural criticism, biography, history, political analysis, etc., what was the timeframe from its beginning to completion?

It’s a combination of many things. The key elements begin with how I stand on the shoulders of three eminent scholars. Sven spent a lifetime writing other books before writing the one we based the film on, the same with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Michel-Rolph Trouillot. Their books were written late in their careers where the amount of knowledge was established. It is the same for me. This film is the result of 40 years. So when you have all that baggage the film’s narrative in a sense is done. But then begins the process of actually making it and to find how to make it. It was a battle frame by frame. If at some point the text asked for certain types of images, then I need to find them. We can either use animation or a period photo. So we have to take what’s lying around in museums, catalogues, even in supermarkets, and bind them into my story. There isn’t a great filmography of everything as it was lived. For example I have no memory of my history. All the colonial photos of African colonization were made almost 99% by people who believed in it. Few were critical. Even the critics were embedded in the ideology of the time. Even those photos of amputated hands in the Belgian Congo, you can tell they thought it was wrong, but they were still in the mindset of colonization.  I had to decipher all that to make the images work for me. On top of that you have to keep the audience focused.  I used poetry, comedy. There is some humor in the film because otherwise it would be unbearable. At first I didn’t even know if it would be two, three or four parts. Luckily, I had the money to do what I would usually do with a smaller team. I was able to keep going until I was satisfied. 

Do you feel this signals new opportunities for socially conscious directors? Maybe like the wave we had in the ‘70s with filmmakers like Costa-Gavras?

I hope so. I’m aware we’ve been making “filmmakers’ films.” For example, when I made “Lumumba” colleagues would tell me, “Oh, we can do that?” It opens windows and doors for them. All my work is always based on reality. I never invent. I find a way to do it. I come from a generation that came right after what we called “The Militant Cinema.” It was a cinema where sound and aesthetic were not important but the slogans, the political content, were important. But my goal was to go further. To where the vast amount of people are. You have to reach everyone. I don’t believe that just a minority can make change. Marx himself and his colleagues made a newspaper because he knew you had to be close to the people.

And finally, now that “Exterminate All the Brutes” is finished, what is inspiring you now? What stories are you planning to tell next?

It’s way too early. But what I can tell you is that my possible next three projects are already written. I was writing them on the side. I have a screenplay finished on the Haitian Revolution. It’s in financing right now. I also have a script about Frantz Fanon that is also in financing. I also have a third story, about the assassination of Malcolm X, and that would be a miniseries. These are the ones that are already written. Now it’s about finding the right place for them.

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