Filmmaker Raoul Peck: “Do We Wish for a Common History?”

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Poster for Exterminate All the Brutes

Pristine wilderness. Sounds like a good thing, doesn’t it? A place untouched. But does the phrase “pristine wilderness,” connoting unsullied land, serve as a cultural myth that ironically reeks of genocide?

Raoul Peck makes this case and many others in his stunning four-part documentary-essay, Exterminate All the Brutes, currently on HBO, where writer/director Peck sets out to “tell the truth we prefer to forget” about the unabashed atrocities that emerged out of European colonialism and undergird our current lives. He wants to give voice to those who have been silenced and make connections that might surprise. Was the Holocaust of World War II made possible by the so-called taming of the American West?

The title, “Exterminate All the Brutes,” references Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness, about the nineteenth-century murderous exploitation of the Congo by Belgium.

The subtitles of the four parts in the series help point the way to the depth of content:

  • Part One: The Disturbing Confidence of Ignorance
  • Part Two: Who the F*** is Columbus?
  • Part Three: Killing at a Distance
  • Part Four: The Bright Colors of Fascism

While the content follows thematically from Parts One to Four, episodes can be watched in differing orders. If Part One seems daunting because of its wide-ranging scope or bluntness, move to Part Two which has a more sharply focused story. Circle back to Part One.

The HBO website has links to the film’s sources, clips from the film, an explanatory video by Peck, reading and viewing suggestions, and a discussion guide. An entire course could follow from this film series.

Peck’s past work as a filmmaker, producing documentaries and dramatic features, all on political and humanitarian subjects, clarifies how he arrived at his current opus. Some of his films are easy to find. In 2000 he released a dramatic film, Lumumba, about the assassinated revolutionary leader of Congo during its liberation from Belgian rule, which is as impeccable in its detail as a documentary. Nine years prior, Peck made a documentary on the same subject. His 2005 drama about the Rwandan genocide, Sometimes in April, and his 2017 dramatic feature The Young Karl Marx illuminate crucial historical events. Peck released his most notable film, the award-winning I Am Not Your Negro, in 2016. In this must-see documentary, Peck provides images to illustrate James Baldwin’s words from an unpublished manuscript of Baldwin’s. The form of I Am Not Your Negro led to Peck’s current work.

In Exterminate All the Brutes, the narration is from Raoul Peck himself as he ruminates on what he has read, witnessed, and experienced. He tells a personal story as he examines centuries of brutal world history. “I just want to understand,” he says. His words stir. Peck’s voice mesmerizes. It’s dry, whispery, impassioned.

Writer/director Raoul Peck

A strength of Exterminate All the Brutes is that Peck weaves in his personal history, even sharing home movies. He was born in Haiti in 1953. Eight years later his family moved to the newly formed Democratic Republic of Congo, where his father worked as an agronomist. Peck attended college in the United States, France, and Germany. He served as Minister of Culture in Haiti from 1996–97. With this film, he makes clear, he is not adding to the historical record. He is processing history. He is trying, as he says, to find the “courage to understand what we know.”

Peck gives co-credit for the film to three authors. He cites the scholarship of Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History; Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous People’s History of America; and, especially, Sven Lindqvist, Exterminate all the Brutes: One Man’s Odyssey into the Heart of Darkness and the Origins of European Genocide. The dense richness of the film invites viewers to delve into Peck’s sources of inspiration.

Peck uses an astounding variety of source material for the images. He uses archival footage and photographs, original artwork, dramatized scenes, excerpts from films, home movies, and animation. His inventive layering and manipulation of the images creates an evocative, often disturbing, yet beautiful collage.

With his artistry, Peck critiques how versions of history are designed, disseminated, and reinforced. Does the line “Doctor Livingstone, I presume” sound familiar? Livingstone, a Scottish missionary, was famous in Europe and the United States as an explorer in Africa, but after he stopped sending articles home, he was thought to be lost. American journalist Henry Morton Stanley set out, with two hundred men, to find him. Stanley presumably used this greeting when he found Livingstone in central Africa, and the phrase took root as a charming example of understatement.

Peck offers a different take on Stanley’s adventures. While in Africa, Stanley received a seven-year-old boy, named Ndugu M’hali, as a gift. He renamed him Kalulu and brought him to England. In 1872, Stanley had photos taken in a London studio. In one, Stanley is dressed as an explorer and Kalulu with a cloth wrapped around his waist. Kalulu serves Stanley tea.

Reenactment of Henry Morton Stanley being served tea by his servant-slave “Kalulu” (Ndugu M’hali)

Peck shows the photograph and then dramatizes a scene. We see the photographer styling the shot as he instructs Kalulu to take off his shirt and tells Stanley, “It’ll make him look more natural. Yeah, native.” Peck next shows a photo of Kalulu fully dressed, and as the camera slowly zooms in, Peck voices Kalulu’s thoughts. Speaking of his complex relationship with Stanley, Kalulu says, “That in the press he called me his ‘infant cannibal’ should have tipped me off.”

The film’s impressive score by Alexei Aigui, with songs from many wonderful artists such as Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, Irma Jones, Elmore James, and Bob Dylan, helps carry viewers through the tough images and ideas.

Peck says in an interview (The Moveable Fest, interview by Stephen Saito, April 7, 2021) that with Exterminate All the Brutes, he aims to “crack the core story.” Getting to the core requires spiraling, grinding, repeating. Cracking requires new angles, fresh materials, searing thoughts.

Despite Peck’s masterful effort to “crack the core story,” he ignores entirely the role of witch hunts, trials, and executions in European history, and only hints at the role of male dominance in brutality without examining it head on.

Where do we find the motivation to watch this formidable series? We watch to reinforce what we already understand, learn anew, feel our minds churning and opening, and appreciate Peck’s enormous talent and point of view. Forgetting comes with a price. And remembering requires reminders. Give Peck a chance.

Audrey Wells, a former longtime resident of Urbana-Champaign, is a retired educator and freelance writer.

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