“Where did the whole ideology of white supremacy begin?” That, Raoul Peck tells Robert Ito in the New York Times, is the question he’s taking on in Exterminate All the Brutes, a four-part series for HBO premiering today. The jolting title was first lifted from a note scrawled by Mr. Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness by Swedish historian Sven Lindqvist for his 2007 book on the European colonization of Africa. Two other key texts informing Peck’s series are Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States and Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past, a classic analysis of the old adage that holds that history is written by the victors. With Exterminate All the Brutes, Peck is seeking to do nothing less, he tells Devika Girish on the Film Comment podcast, than to explicate “the moment of definition of who we are today, of what the Eurocentric world is that has been dominating history for hundreds of years.”
Following his critically acclaimed documentary on James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro (2016), and his 2017 fictional feature The Young Karl Marx, Peck spent three years piecing together archival footage and photographs, historical documents, clips from Hollywood movies, personal family snapshots and Super 8 home movies—“I am an immigrant from a shithole country,” the Haitian director says at one point in Exterminate—infographics, reenactments, and original animated sequences to create what Ito calls “a supremely ambitious, deeply essayistic undertaking.”
Reviews of the series, cut down to four hours from fifteen, range from the positive to the mixed. “It may well be the most politically radical and intellectually challenging work of nonfiction ever made for television,” writes Time’s Judy Berman. For Chris Barsanti at Slant, Exterminate “ultimately doesn’t cohere, yanking together too many disparate elements without the necessary connective tissue and inserting a series of distractingly stiff dramatizations in which Josh Hartnett plays variations on a white imperialist, including slave master, soldier, and explorer.” Even so, this “dizzying assemblage of evidence draws some of its power from the urgent tone of Peck’s mosaic approach, which jumps from Belgian barbarism in nineteenth-century Congo to Columbus landing on Hispaniola in 1492 to the bombing of Hiroshima to the Holocaust.”
Chris Marker’s landmark essay film Sans Soleil (1983) “seems almost certain to have been an inspiration,” suggests Mike Hale in the New York Times. “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.” But in the Hollywood Reporter,Inkoo Kang finds that “despite its bleak subject matter, Exterminate All the Brutes is visually gorgeous, at times even easy to watch.” That’s intentional. Peck is aiming for the broadest possible audience. “Everybody needs to acknowledge that the story of the United States started with a genocide,” he tells Lisa Wong Macabasco in the Guardian. “I don’t know any other film that voices it so clearly and so solidly.”
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