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▶︎ Exterminate All the Brutes (four episodes) is available on Sky Documentaries and Now TV from 1 May 2021.

In the wake of I Am Not Your Negro (2016), Raoul Peck’s genre-bending documentary about James Baldwin, the director gives us another kind of biography – of the globe. Exterminate All the Brutes is no less than a documentary history of the world in three words: “Civilisation, colonisation, extermination,” the commentary intones at the start of the first of four hour-long parts.

The voiceover, at times close to a rasping whisper, is in the deep, confident, accented voice of Peck himself, propelling a ‘grand narrative’ about imperialism and genocide. Peck, unlike the recent report for Boris Johnson’s government by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, has no space for the good side of empire.

Yes, it is complicated, the Raoul growl tells us, but it is also blindingly obvious: empire – and the slavery and forced labour which were integral to it – is all bad. Such “crude thinking”, as Bertolt Brecht called it, is a necessity sometimes.

A missionary with indigenous Shuar children from Gualaquiza, Ecuador, shown in Exterminate All the Brutes

But the filmmaking is far from crude, as Peck criss-crosses seamlessly between moving- and still-image documentary archive, animation, illustrative graphics and clips from feature films, ranging from The Wizard of Oz (1939) to the ill-judged The Legend of Tarzan (2016). But most prominent is Peck’s own dramatic reconstruction of events, like the massacre of encamped Seminoles and runaway slave Maroons by American troops in what is now Florida.

This happened in 1836, but the pivotal year in Peck’s global history is 1492, when Spain expelled its Jews and Columbus ‘discovered’ America, sparking a gold rush for land and resources which fuelled the genocide of Indigenous peoples and the spread of the transatlantic slave trade.

Peck links these horrors to those of the Nazi death camps in a sequence about Raphael Lemkin. When this Polish-Jewish lawyer coined the word ‘genocide’ in 1943, he didn’t just have the Final Solution in mind. He was aware of just how many genocides – from Oregon to Armenia – had preceded his use of the term. Also, he defined slavery – with its obliteration of the individual and all their ties with the way of life of their ancestors – as ‘cultural genocide’.

Caisa Ankarsparre in Exterminate All the Brutes

Peck’s own background as a Haitian who has also lived in Brooklyn, Berlin and the Congo enables him to make more personal links. They are there from the very first image in the film. It is of the face of a Seminole woman, played by Caisa Ankarsparre, a Swede of Colombian and First Nation origin. She reminds Peck of his mother, and we see a photo of her. Thereafter the film is interspersed with more images from the family album and with sequences from the Peck home movies.

The Seminole woman is shot and scalped – scalping being a practice, the series informs us, brought to America by Protestant Scots-Irish settlers who during the 17th-century Plantation of Ulster claimed the scalps of the native Irish Catholics they were there to subdue. It would become a model for the American colonies and for that related kind of plantation where slaves were worked to death for profit.

We don’t learn about scalping until Part 2. Peck constantly returns to scenes he has set up in Part 1, adding to their themes with more information and layers of imagery. The effect is cumulative – never repetitious – and produces a linearity which, though it doubles back on itself, feels as purposeful as a call to arms in agitprop theatre. In fact, graphic captions such as ‘The Disturbing Confidence of Ignorance’, which subdivide the parts, read like good ‘crude’ placards.

Fraser James in Exterminate All the Brutes

The most concrete piece of sloganeering comes with ‘The Murky Secret of Rubber’, a reference to the Belgian Congo, where the extraction of rubber and other commodities led to the terrible crimes against humanity that would inspire Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899). The novelist knew the Congo first hand, and at one point has his cultivated but depraved protagonist Kurtz utter the words that give Peck his title.

‘Exterminate All the Brutes’ is also the title of Sven Lindqvist’s brilliant 1992 exploration of Conrad and colonialism and the way in which the bogus science of eugenics provided colonisers with a rationale to treat Africans and other non-Europeans as a brutish sub-species. He became a friend of Peck, who is also filled with personal admiration for the writers of two other of his major sourcebooks – Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995), by Michel-Rolph Trouillot, and An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (2014) by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz.

Raoul Peck directing Exterminate All the Brutes

Animated graphics of maps and so forth often feel like the drearier moments in historical documentaries, but here they are deployed to great effect – whether they are revealing how the human species spread from its original home in East Africa to the rest of the globe, or illustrating the geography of the Crusades. The Crusaders’ onslaught against Muslims and annexation of land in the Middle East is read as the feudal prelude to Columbian capitalist rapacity and its modern equivalents, in the form of the War on Terror conducted by the military-industrial complex and its neoliberal economic drivers.

It is this line of thought, along with the obscenity of the nuclear devastation of Hiroshima, that dominates Part 3. It is with telling detail that Peck often makes his broad historical brushstrokes things of terrible and vivid beauty. Here we learn that the world’s first armaments factory to be run along industrial capitalist lines was founded in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1777 by the government of the newly independent USA – the A might well stand for Armaments.

Peck’s proselytising point of view could easily fall into bombast. The films’ often contemplative pace militates against this, though, as does Alexei Aigui’s score. It complements the ‘crude’ epic reach with subtlety and economy so that, even during dramatic surges, you are never distracted from the flow of information. The use of pre-existing songs also works well – Bob Dylan’s Masters of War, for example, igniting Part 3: Killing from a Distance.

Josh Hartnett in Exterminate All the Brutes

The use in Part 4 of Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door is just as effective. This Wyclef Jean version is no elegy for the Old West with Slim Pickens expiring in the sunset, as in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973). Rather it is a further savage indictment of the murderous European land-grab of the New World, set against images of Josh Hartnett as an Easy Rider in a metaphorical fictional landscape, roaring through ‘Injun territory’ until his motorbike breaks down and he is surrounded by ‘hostiles’, in this case Africans.

This proves to be his worst nightmare – literally. He wakes up and turns out be a white African colonialist we encountered earlier in the series: at that point, he was being bathed by an African woman whose menfolk had been hanged outside her hut. Hartnett – a sort of all-purpose murderous wild colonial boy through the ages – also plays the officer leading the killers of the Seminoles and Maroons. In another scene, the boot is on the other foot as we see him being flogged by a Black man. Meanwhile, a group of white slaves can be seen, shackled together, one bearing the marks of previous floggings. This image, a great reversal, concentrates the mind – a fanciful counterfactual which pushes home the brutal realities. Conrad’s narrator Marlow does such a ‘reversal’ in Heart of Darkness when he asks how you’d feel if “mysterious” Black men “armed with all kinds of weapons” roamed the roads of Kent forcing the “yokels” into bondage.

Peck’s reversals are defiant. He is not in the business of telling the story of slavery by holding up some abolitionist mirror. He wants to smash the mirror and use the fragments to put that story into perspective. Abolition would not have come about without the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804, which entailed the defeat and death of 50,000 French soldiers and sailors.

Exterminate All the Brutes is a masterpiece to set beside Gillo Pontecorvo’s take on the Black Jacobin Caribbean, Burn! (¡Quiemada!, 1969), a film sadly neglected in comparison to his The Battle of Algiers (1966). Peck’s series is also in the same league as Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent (2015). That film’s grotesque hallucinatory sequences in a riverside mission school capture Conrad and “the horror, the horror” of imperialism far more effectively than Apocalypse Now (1979), whose riffs on Heart of Darkness Peck references throughout this phenomenal documentary.

Further reading

I Am Not Your Negro distils the James Baldwin that we need now

By Thomas Chatterton Williams

I Am Not Your Negro distils the James Baldwin that we need now

Colonial visions: Concerning Violence and N – The Madness of Reason

By Ashley Clark

Colonial visions: Concerning Violence and N – The Madness of Reason

Alien abductions: 12 Years a Slave and the past as science fiction

By Ashley Clark

Alien abductions: 12 Years a Slave and the past as science fiction

Film of the week: Zama makes slow jest of a mouldering colonial mandarin

By Maria Delgado

Film of the week: Zama makes slow jest of a mouldering colonial mandarin

Film of the week: The Pearl Button

By Maria Delgado

Film of the week: The Pearl Button

Embrace of the Serpent review: a true Amazonian treasure

By Demetrios Matheou

Embrace of the Serpent review: a true Amazonian treasure

Sight & Sound Summer 2021

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