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Review: Exterminate All The Brutes
The birth and implementation of a damaging fiction
Note: this review discusses enslavement, genocide, the Holocaust.
When this HBO documentary series was first mentioned to me (by my dad) the title alone gave me pause. And the documentary itself did not disappoint.
Created by Raoul Peck with Sven Lindquist and Michel-Rolph Trouillot Roxane Dunbar Ortiz, this four-part documentary series is based on a book with the same title. It is a hard-hitting look at systematic “civilisation”, colonization and, yes, exermination of people of the global majority, told in several parts.
Here’s the trailer:
Below, I’ll go through the episodes, pulling out some of the key quotes and ideas.
Part 1. “The disturbing confidence of ignorance”
In part 1, Peck reveals that the phrase “exterminate all the brutes” is from Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”. He traces the start of the ideology of white supremacy to the Spanish Inquisition, which also gave us the idea of “race” based on blood in reference to non-Christians who were seen as “savages”. Peck stats that the Holocaust and the period of enslavements were two more iterations of this damaging idea. To make it stick, somehow those in power convinced poor whites to embrace white supremacy as a substitute for land and enslaved people, cementing the system.
Throughout, Peck uses contemporary photos, paintings and documents to tell a powerful story. For example, the idea of “extermination” is prevalent in those of European heritage, as many mass murders by those of that heritage show. And he shows the conditions needed for genocide - fanaticism, exploitation, slavery, conquest, contempt for aliens - which should give us pause as we look at what’s happening in the world today.
He also shows a shift in the concept of land from collective and sacred to private property to be profited from, and makes it clear that those who colonised the United States of America knew the land belonged to the Native Americans but just didn't care.
Standout quote: "The happiness of one cannot be built on the pain of all others".
Part 2. "Who the F*** is Columbus?”
Part 2 unpacks the Christopher Columbus story we've all been told, which led to the doctrine of discovery. It’s worth noting that at that point in history neither Europe nor whiteness really existed.
I was haunted, as always, by the extent of the trafficking of enslaved people, amounting to some 12.5 million. The image of the skeletons at the bottom of the ocean is equally chilling.
One section of the documentary switches the roles of enslaved and enslaver by skin colour. I wonder if that makes watchers more appalled?
This section also looks at what stories are told and which ones are silenced (like the success of the Haitian Revolution, and the genocide led by Andrew Jackson) and how one harmful practice feeds the other in a vicious cycle. For example, Peck says the enslavement of Africans in the USA helped create European ethnocentrism. He also highlights the impetus for new immigrants to look down on Black and Brown people and join the “compact of whiteness.”
Standout quote: "Not all silences are equal."
Part 3. "Killing at a Distance or...How I Thoroughly Enjoyed the Outing"
In part 3, Peck shows the development of ideas of “savagery” and the use of that idea as reason to use undue force and hunt and kill non-white populations. It’s notable, for example, that dum dum bullets were only allowed in hunting and against non white populations, not so subtly making the link between Black and Brown people and animals.
These ideas, he shows, filter down to seeing Black people as disposable, and portraying them as such in the media, eugenics, and more. He shows how Darwin’s theory of evolution led to the acceptance of racism as an explanation, and genocide and prejudice got validation.
And he talks about the European speciality of killing at a distance, shown not just during colonisation but in the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (I’d argue that drone strikes simply continue the trend.)
Europeans mistook military superiority for intellectual and biological superiority, says Peck, and they followed a pattern: exterminate anyone resisting the seizure of the land. This same pattern can be seen in the rise of Nazism.
Standout quote: "We do not want to remember. We would prefer for genocide to have begun and ended with Nazism. This would be most comforting."
Part 4. "The Bright Colors of Fascism"
One of the key questions in part 4 is when was America great, and for whom. Here, Peck explodes "the myth of pristine wilderness" and shows how killing and displacement were used to create “uninhabited” land. Legal frameworks, like the 2nd Amendment to the US Constitution, helped facilitate the killing of Native Americans and enslaved Africans. As I think about that, I wonder what has changed.
Peck discusses the absence of empathy in many world leaders, and adds that it’s necessary to identify and denounce the consequences of the past and how they affect our reality today. He also shows how enslavement has continued to the present day.
Standout quote: "It's not knowledge we lack."
Finally, here’s Raoul Peck’s Statement of Intent for the series.
One of the most impressive aspects of this documentary series is the way Peck draws draws on published sources to create a narrative. The result is that the colonisers are condemned by their own words.
Be warned: this is not easy to watch. There is brutality - a lot of it - and footage of genocide, murder and Nazism.
That said, if you CAN manage to get through it, you may find, as I did, that it’s simultaneously enlightening and depressing, and extremely informative. You’ve been warned. If you DO watch it, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.
Thanks for reading,
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Note: paid subscribers got early access to this review on January 23, 2023. Publication to all subscribers was scheduled for February 13, 2023.
© Sharon Hurley Hall, 2023. All Rights Reserved.