Photo courtesy of HBO / IMDb

Blood and Honor in the Americas: 'Exterminate All the Brutes' Review

"600 years of history in one single film. But because this film is also about cinema, I wanted to push the boundaries of conventional documentary film making and find the freedom to tell this story by any means necessary. Exterminates All the Brutes weaves together archival footage, documentary footage, dynamic animation, voiceover, and scripted fictional scenes. It creates a new narrative that can carry the nuanced and emotional levels of the subject matter and crack the core story from the inside out. As writers, creators, filmmakers, we have no choice then to reflect on societies and provide knowledge and challenges in addition to mere entertainment. And as artists, we need to break the limits of our art. This is what this film specifically and concurrently set out to achieve. Exterminate all the brutes."

This is Raoul Peck’s statement of interest for his new documentary series Exterminate All the Brutes (EATB), released by HBO in early April. Peck is previously known for directing the 2016 documentary about James Baldwin, titled I Am Not Your Negro, and the 2017 biopic The Young Karl Marx. The series takes many of its core themes from Sven Lindqvist’s book of the same name, which is itself named after Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. Peck argues that the Holocaust was the culmination of Western civilization, which is itself built and sustained by global white supremacy pushed to a genocidal extreme. He traces Western history from the Spanish Reconquista to the invasion and conquest of the Americas to the Atlantic slave trade and finally to the Holocaust. Peck asserts that the extermination of European Jews could not have been possible without earlier “practice” against non-white peoples and nations conquered by Europe.

In episode one of EATB, Peck states his thesis for the series and provides an abbreviated summary of his argument. To him, three words summarize Western history: civilization, colonization, extermination. These motifs oftentimes blur together in Peck's discussion. For instance, he argues that the first seeds of race and white supremacy were planted during the Christian Castilian conquest of Iberia, dubbed the Reconquista. During this period, Iberian Jews and Muslims were subjected to genocide in which many were forced to convert to Catholicism. To distinguish between converts and old Christians, the Church and the Castilian crown pronounced the doctrine of limpieza de sangre, literally meaning cleanliness of blood. Indeed, “The road to Auschwitz was paved by the early heart of Christendom–and this road leads straight to the heart of America.” Peck asserts that despite common narratives, the US began and remains a colonial power, sustained by the destruction of countless Indigenous nations. It is, therefore, guilty of past and ongoing genocide. To underscore this point, a timeline of Indigenous dispossession across the centuries plays to the sound of a falling tree. Over the course of a few minutes, the viewer sees the consistent growth of the settler population with the equally consistent erasure of dozens of Native peoples. This genocide served as Hitler’s model for the Holocaust and his war of annihilation against Slavic peoples.

The next episode begins with a scripted scene depicting the first contact between the Spanish and the Indigenous Taino people of modern-day Hispaniola. The Spaniards are killed, their ship departs, but a large fleet returns in the next shot. In short, Peck depicts the “discovery” of America, which gets to the episode’s central theme of history-writing as a form of power. He particularly focuses on the Haitian Revolution and the colonization of the Americas. In contrast to popular imagery like John Wayne’s glamorous Cowboy-and-Indian films, European arrival meant the destruction of over 90% of Native peoples by way of disease, famine, barbaric exploitation, and active annihilation. Peck convincingly shows that the invasion of North America, in particular, was a continental-scale duplicate of the English’s genocidal conquest of Ireland. Indeed, many of the same Ulster-Scot colonizers in Ireland later settled in America to make their names in Indian-killing and slave-hunting: “They regarded themselves as chosen people of the covenant, commanded by God to go into the wilderness to build the new Israel.” (It is worth noting that the modern Zionist movement is no different from these progenitors.) Moreover, many of their descendants would be hailed as heroes of liberty, Andrew Jackson—the man responsible for Indian ethnic cleansing in the Southeast—foremost among them. While Indigenous dispossession is celebrated, the Haitian Revolution has broadly been expunged from popular memory.

Peck sets the stage for this discussion with an unnerving animated scene depicting the drain of over 10 million human beings from Africa into the Americas. In the next shot, an African man dives overboard to escape slavery. With Haiti, Peck asserts that this was the only Atlantic revolution that lived up to the purported ideals of the Enlightenment, having created the first free American republic with the hands of humble enslaved people. In his words, “Haiti created the possible.” It is no coincidence that most of Latin America would gain its independence in the years following the Haitian Revolution. Nor is it a coincidence that French peasants would complete in Europe the struggle started by enslaved Haitians in St. Domingue.

In the second half of the series, Peck mostly elaborates on already established concepts, but he does briefly discuss the fusions between industry and genocide, and between white supremacy and science. Regarding the former, he contends that as European states industrialized, they used their newfound strength to more efficiently murder and conquer non-whites. These murderous conquests, in turn, further fueled their industrial economies, thus perpetuating the cycle. He recounts, as one grim example, the Battle of Omdurman, in which over ten thousand Sudanese fighters were killed as compared to a few dozen British troops. 

On the development of “scientific” racism, Peck introduces the viewer to Herbert Spencer and his theory of Social Darwinism, which extended Darwinian evolution to race and society. Spencer argued that the law of “survival of the fittest” made it so that certain races were destined to extinction. It was, therefore, necessary and indeed admirable to “accelerate” this extinction by way of active extermination. This polluted ideology justified the German genocide of the Herero and Namaqua peoples in modern-day Namibia. Peck calls this crime the “Final Solution in Africa,” fittingly, since Hitler grew up as it was happening, so he surely knew of it. The episode ends with a clip of Margaret Sanger, hailed founder of Planned Parenthood, extolling the supposed virtues of eugenics against “inferior” races. 

In keeping with the above, Peck continues to expand on previously-discussed themes while making some noteworthy additions. For one, he argues that every war fought by the US is a re-enactment of the Indian Wars. In the so-called War on Terror, American intelligence nicknamed Osama Bin Laden “Geronimo,” after the great Apache freedom fighter of the same name. Moreover, enemy territory in Afghanistan is known as “Indian Country.” All of this reflects the US’s attitudes towards Native nations. Returning to the thesis in episode one, Peck maintains that the Nazi effort for Lebensraum was merely American Manifest Destiny turned inwards on Europe. In Hitler’s own words, Indian genocide and Black slavery were the perfect models for his plans for Jews and Slavs. Put another way, the Holocaust was thus the marriage of historical European antisemitism with colonial genocide. This begs the question: what do we do about this information today? For the US, Peck very briefly suggests full self-determination and restitution for the Indigenous and Black people. He concludes the series with a flyover shot of Auschwitz-Birkenau, set to a quote from Sven Lindqvist: “It is not knowledge we lack.”

Peck’s docuseries is a welcome change from most analyses of modern fascism or American history. His repeated emphasis on the fate of Indigenous nations and other oppressed peoples is admirable. Although not the focus of this review, the series is also quite uniquely composed. He splices a large amount of his own family footage, film scenes, archival documents, and more throughout the film. It can be a bit jarring at first, but it is a commendable effort to depart from the usual “fly-on-the-wall” neutrality of most documentaries. Such neutrality is oftentimes pretentious and fails at actually being neutral, resulting in a biased account presented as “objective.” More importantly, this kind of approach would have been morally bankrupt for such a sensitive historical appraisal. We cannot “just present the facts” about genocide, racial oppression, and national exploitation. As the great Howard Zinn once said: “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” Peck thus succeeds in this respect of his statement of interest, quoted at the start of our brief look into Exterminate All the Brutes.

However, there are some problems. The subject matter becomes repetitive without adding further insight towards the latter half of the series.  This time could have been better spent by either introducing new ideas or expanding upon ones that were not as thoroughly discussed, such as the link between industry and colonial violence. Peck broadly fails to adequately tie the history he analyzes with the rise of capitalism. It is noteworthy that perhaps the two greatest crimes in all of humanity—the annihilation of Indian nations and Black enslavement—coincided with the establishment of a new economic system based on private property, investment for profit, and wage labor. This is not to say that Peck totally ignores this connection—he at one point draws a direct link between the violent subjugation of Africa to Europe’s current wealth—but that he does not go far enough in this analysis. For instance, he merely hints at the current-day ties of dependence and exploitation that sustain first-world standards of living. Radicals like Arghiri Emmanuel and Samir Amin have shown this at length.

In short, Europe and the white Anglosphere remain wealthy and powerful because they leech from the rest of the world. The international COVID vaccine apartheid is an illustrative example. Currently, thousands are dying in India to the hallowed name of patents while the mostly white citizens of the first world are enjoying easy and affordable vaccinations. Furthermore, Peck’s series neglects how white supremacy came to be embraced by even laboring or poor white peoples, who form one of its strongest bulwarks. He briefly mentions that white supremacy came to serve as a substitute for property, but he does not elaborate on this, and the claim is also not fully accurate. Historian J. Sakai presents another story in his highly-recommended book Settlers. An ideology is toothless unless a large body of people, due to their material interests, believes in and gives force to it. The series’ primarily focuses on the development of the ideological white supremacy itself rather than the development of its hegemony. For these reasons, EATB serves as a great introduction to this kind of historical and political outlook, rather than as a comprehensive education. I would strongly advise against its use in the latter way. After finishing the series, the viewer should look further and continue to educate themselves. Here, Peck provides excellent suggestions. The three books by Dunbar-Ortiz, Lindqvist, and Trouillot mentioned above are all good starting places for further study.

I also refer the viewer to the following texts:

The Invasion of America – Francis Jennings

American Holocaust – David Stannard

Liberalism: A Counter-History – Domenico Losurdo

The Black Jacobins – CLR James

Capitalism and Slavery – Eric Williams

How Europe Underdeveloped Africa – Walter Rodney

The Open Veins of Latin America – Eduardo Galeano

 

In addition, here is a list of the texts mentioned in “The Transubstantiation of White Privilege:”

Settlers – J. Sakai

The Invention of the White Race – Theodore Allen

How the Irish Became White – Noel Ignatiev

Black Reconstruction – WEB DuBois

Traces of History – Patrick Wolfe

 

Final rating: 8/10

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