Review: ‘Exterminate All the Brutes’ Rewrites a Brutal History

“The very existence of this film is a miracle,” Raoul Peck says in “Exterminate All the Brutes,” a documentary he wrote, directed and narrated. He’s referring to the existence of a film that retells the history of colonialism and slavery from a nonwhite, non-Western viewpoint, though in 2021 that may seem less like a miracle than an expectation.

What’s more miraculous is that Peck found a home on mainstream American television — yes, it’s HBO, but still — for a supremely personal, impressionistic yet intellectualized, four-hour cascade of images, ruminations and historical aperçus. (The busy editor was Alexandra Strauss.) That would be an impressive achievement on any subject, let alone genocide.

The title “Exterminate All the Brutes,” with its combination of blunt force and literary flourish (and its suggestion that history has misidentified the real brutes), is appropriate to a project that elaborates on and aestheticizes feelings of outrage, disbelief and despair. (It was taken from Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” and from a 1996 book by the historian Sven Lindqvist that is one of several scholarly sources Peck drew on.)

The film, whose four chapters premiere Wednesday and Thursday nights, is unrelenting in its critique, but it’s also more muted in tone than that title might suggest. Peck’s slightly droning narration contributes to that effect, as does an approach that’s more free-associative than truly essayistic. There’s also, unfortunately, the documentary’s tendency to cycle through and circle around a relatively small set of ideas that would have had more force in a shorter film.

If “Exterminate All the Brutes” is never boring, it’s less because Peck — whose James Baldwin documentary, “I Am Not Your Negro,” was an Oscar nominee in 2017 — always gives you something new to think about than because he always gives you something new to look at.

In addition to the expected archival images from centuries of colonial depredation, the film incorporates animated historical recreations; snazzy graphics; copious clips from Hollywood depictions of non-Western populations; photos and home movies from Peck’s childhood in Haiti, Africa and New York City; and fictional scenes featuring Josh Hartnett as the stolid face of white supremacy, in various times and places. (All colonialists look alike.)

Peck’s story focuses on the entwined threads of the genocide of North America’s Indigenous people and the enslavement of Africans, and on the links he finds between those horrors and other genocides and oppressions, particularly the Holocaust. There are things in his account that will probably be new for many viewers, like the discussion of the Spanish priest Bartolomé de las Casas and his role in the fates of both Indigenous people in the Americas and African slaves, or the way Peck restores the Haitian revolution to its rightful stature alongside the American and French revolutions.

But much of the material in “Exterminate All the Brutes” is familiar; it has been known all along, a circumstance that Peck acknowledges and that fuels his anger.

“The educated general public has always largely known what atrocities have been committed and are being committed in the name of progress, civilization, socialism, democracy and the market,” he says. The question is why they have been ignored, obfuscated and whitewashed in popular culture.

Peck’s broad assertions and arguments aren’t likely to generate a lot of controversy, though his repeated linking of the histories of the American West and African colonialism to the Holocaust (allowing for a lot of Hitler footage) might strike some as facile or insensitive.

In his attempt to replace the traditional narratives about Indigenous and other oppressed peoples with his own storytelling, though, some strategies are less successful than others. The fictional sequences may be Peck’s most direct attempt to redress history — Hartnett enacts shooting a Seminole woman in the head in one scene, and in another is bathed by an African woman near a grouping of lynched corpses — but their art-house staginess and solemnity serve only to distance us from what we’re seeing. (It’s also noticeable that women are not often seen or heard from in the film, except as silent victims.)

A work that “Exterminate All the Brutes” calls to mind, and which seems almost certain to have been an inspiration for it — in both theme and technique — is Chris Marker’s great film essay “Sans Soleil,” from 1983. But Peck’s documentary is more polemical and less poetic than Marker’s; it constantly makes connections, but it feels more didactic than complex, more academic than allusive.

(The rush of often violent or disturbing imagery sometimes calls to mind a very different film, the 1962 Italian shock-doc “Mondo Cane.”)

Peck sprinkles the four hours with images of and references to recent American presidents, and in the final chapter he lands full force in the present day, comparing Donald Trump and other heads of state with the white, Western overlords of the colonial era.

But throughout “Exterminate All the Brutes,” the specific drifts into the general and the historical into the personal without, perhaps, the effect that Peck is hoping for. He closes with a reproving phrase that echoes through the film: “It’s not knowledge we lack.” But he declines to say what it is we lack — compassion? Willpower? If there is something we possess that could have made history different, either he doesn’t know or he’s not telling.

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