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Review: Raoul Peck: Exterminate all the brutes

Faline Bobier

May 27, 2021
This year’s Oscars was the least-viewed Academy Awards telecast on record in the United States, with 10.4 million viewers. Not surprising – given the year we have just experienced. One of the last things on people’s minds in this year of Covid is probably a pointless ceremony highlighting excess and awarding prizes to often irrelevant films, that are chosen by a group of still mostly white old men.
So, if you didn’t watch the Oscars ceremony you didn’t miss much. However, the content, if not the form, of this year’s event was somewhat remarkable.
Many of the films nominated reflected the social turmoil we have been living through, by highlighting marginalized or deliberately ignored struggles and stories.
Daniel Kaluuya, the British actor who portrayed Chairman Fred Hampton of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party who was murdered by police and FBI agents in 1969 at the age of 21, won best supporting actor. Judas and the Black Messiah is a movie that highlights the history of the Panthers and shows clearly the role of the police and the state in exterminating the threat to white supremacy that the Panthers represented.
Similarly, the Oscars gave the nod to movies like One night in Miami, which highlights a historic (but fictional) meeting between Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and football giant Jim Brown and directed by Black American actor and first-time director Regina King. Or Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, a 2020 American drama, based on the play of the same name by August Wilson, which focusses on Ma Rainey, an influential blues singer, and dramatizes a turbulent recording session in 1920s Chicago. 
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom features amazing Black actors such as Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman, the recently deceased actor who broke through as one of the first Black superheroes in Black Panther.
Or, another of the movies nominated, Spike Lee’s film Da Five Bloods, which is streaming on Netflix and features great performances, including that of Delroy Lindo. Da Five Bloods deals with the return of four Black friends to Vietnam 50 years later, to reclaim their fallen comrade, also played by Chadwick Boseman. It’s an exploration of how the past plays into the present and of the layers of racism uncovered by the conflict in Vietnam, both the racism faced by Black soldiers inside the country that sent them to kill and die in record numbers and the anti-Asian racism that was the backdrop to the killing machine these soldiers were a part of.
In the past year, which saw the eruption of BLM on the streets of the US and across the world, there have also been very public manifestations of violence and racism against Asian populations in North America and elsewhere. Fitting then, that Korean actor, Youn Yuh-jung, took the best supporting actress trophy for her role in Minari, the story of a Korean immigrant family struggling to survive and to stay together. 
In this era of attacks on immigrants and the brutal separation of family members we saw under the Trump administration, it’s a heroic feat for this family to survive and stay connected to each other. Minari was written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung and is a semi-autobiographical take on Chung's upbringing, featuring a family of South Korean immigrants who try to make it in rural United States during the 1980s.
One of the big differences this year, of course, is that we haven’t been able to see most (or any) of these movies on the big screen. But it feels like there has been an explosion of content, which still must be paid for by subscribing to various streaming services. It’s ironic, for example, that Judas and the Black Messiah has only been available for purchase at $25.00 a viewing.
That being said, if you are able to watch any of these films on streaming services, or if they become available on accessible sites, such as public library free viewing platforms, they represent an engagement with realities that have long been obscured, ignored, vilified or simply not seen.
Which brings me to the masterful four-part documentary by Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck: Exterminate all the brutes, available on HBO. It may or may not be nominated for an Oscar next year but that’s really beside the point.
As Peck says in the documentary voice-over, which he does himself: “The existence of this film is a miracle.”
A miracle that he was able to make it at all because it is such a damning and overarching indictment of 500 years of colonialism and genocide. 
It seems clear from Peck’s previous films – notably I am not your Negro, the 2016 documentary about Black American writer James Baldwin and the 2017 feature film The Young Karl Marx, a historical drama about the meeting of Marx & Engels up to their publication of The Communist Manifesto – that Peck is passionately committed to the re-telling of history from the side of its victims and not at all interested in pedalling the lies of the victors.
I think this is one of the reasons he chose to do the narration for the film – he speaks at one point about more often trying to stand outside his films, to remain ‘neutral’, but that for this project it seemed necessary to declare himself a part of the history he is relating.
The legacy of imperialism in his own life lead his family to flee Haiti under the Western-backed Duvalier dictatorship to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, from which the Belgians had finally left after independence. He refers in the documentary to coming from that ‘shithole country’, so-called by former US President Donald Trump.
The titles of the 4 parts of his Exterminate all the brutes give a good sense of the project: Part 1: The disturbing confidence of ignorance; Part 2: Who the F*** is Columbus?; Part 3: Killing at a distance and Part 4: The bright colors of fascism.
The sheer scope of the work Peck has taken on is overwhelming and also irrefutable. He uses dramatization of actual historical events, snippets from Hollywood movies, documentary footage from his own life and from horrific episodes in the history of colonialism and imperialism to give us the damning picture of the legacy of so-called civilisation.
The title of the documentary comes originally from the book of Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. It’s the phrase Kurz uses when he decides that his original effort to ‘civilize’ the Africans is for naught and decides it’s better to ‘exterminate all the brutes’. It’s obviously a more apt description of the colonizers themselves, as Peck so ably demonstrates.
As Peck repeats several times throughout, “It’s not knowledge that is lacking. At all times it has been profitable to suppress such knowledge.”
Peck gives us the short, succinct version of the history he will reveal across his four-part documentary: “Three words that summarize the whole history of humanity: civilisation, colonisation, extermination.”
This willful ignorance is on display, particularly when it comes to the genocide of whole populations, as the Indigenous inhabitants of the Americas. At one point, we see former President Barack Obama claiming, ‘America was not a colonial power.” Peck wryly disagrees, “Well, it was actually.”
Near the end of the documentary Peck narrates over pictures of Black Elk and other Indigenous people murdered at Wounded Knee: “Black Elk, Holy Man of the Oglala Lakota people, said after the Wounded Knee massacre, I didn’t know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch. As plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream. The nation’s circle is broken and scattered. There is no centre any longer and the sacred tree is dead. A people’s dream died there.”
According to Peck, “What we lack is the courage to understand what we know and to draw conclusions. We know now when race, colour and blood became institutionalized for the first time. Ultimately it was about gaining wealth and power through annihilation – the birth of white supremacy – the forced deportation of 10 million Africans, the genocide of Indigenous people in the US, the Holocaust.”
In other words, it wasn’t a question of Europeans deciding that Blacks or Indigenous people were inferior and then setting out to annihilate whole civilisations. It was about the birth of capitalism and the search for wealth that lead to the slave trade and to a whole elaborate justification for the creation of wealth for the minority at the expense of the vast majority.
“We came from a very specific history. Civilisation is basically embedded in capitalist society.”
The colonisers created a new concept – the concept of discovery – planting a flag and saying we discovered this land – at the time of Columbus there were over 100 million people living in the continent he ‘discovered’. What proceeded was the extermination of 90% of that population.
Again, according to Peck, “The past is not really past. The past has a future that we can’t anticipate. We are accustomed to not seeing history as a continuity.”
The invaluable thing that Peck does in Exterminate all the brutes is to show us this history and how we are all connected to it and responsible for creating a different future. 
In an interview on Democracy Now Peck talked about how he hoped his film could be of use: “I believe the process of learning the truth – every school, every university should watch the film and discuss it – you need to know your own history – it’s not about accusation – it’s about understanding your history – you can’t understand why police are still killing Black kids, women today. We need to do our homework.”
He chooses to end the film with an aerial view of Auschwitz II-Birkenau and the sound of crowds chanting, No justice! No peace! and ‘Don’t let our planet die!, as well as the climate activist Greta Thunberg, “We still haven’t seen anything yet. This is only the beginning of the beginning.”
Which can be taken two ways. We either continue in the same ignorance and refusal to see the injustice all around us or we decide to act collectively to end the racism and greed of the ‘pornographic rich’ Peck describes in his powerful documentary.
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