There’s a telling scene in the third episode of Exterminate All the Brutes, Raoul Peck’s four-part HBO docuseries about Western colonialism and white supremacy. Peck talks about Swedish author Sven Lindqvist, whom he describes as a friend and whose analysis of 500 years of European violence and racism inspired the Haitian director to make the series. He gives a peculiar description of the Swede, delivered in Peck’s gravelly baritone: “Definitely not a white savior.” It’s one of many moments that prompts the viewer to ask who this was made for.
The show is remarkable for presenting a history never before told on such a mainstream, high-profile platform. The Oscar-nominated filmmaker describes its existence as “a miracle.” It punctures the myth of whiteness and empire as “civilizing” forces, and is a bold reminder that the barbarians were never at the gates, but instead manning the walls all along. Power is critical to the story Peck adroitly traces via the brutality of colonialism and its attendant hypocrisy of Western intellectual humanism. The series explores how physical violence was intertwined with, and sustained by, epistemic violence. It closely follows the conclusions reached by Lindqvist and two other scholars — American historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot. The latter’s analysis of how a European positivist conception of history has shaped the accepted narrative of Western imperialism is one of the show’s main premises.
But there are several glaring omissions that damage Exterminate All the Brutes’ presentation of exactly what Europe and its settler colonies like the US did to the Global South, and how those actions continue to shape the world. Because of this, the documentary simultaneously feels like too much and not enough. Its critique of Western imperialism includes no interrogation of several crucial elements, in particular capitalism and the hyper-sexualization of the Other. The word “capitalism” seldom appears, the word “rape” literally never.
Capitalism was not a byproduct of colonialism, but rather an essential driver of it. Racism was invented to justify the brutal logic of settler colonialism that centered on the violent expropriation of land; potential profits legitimized slaughtering its original inhabitants and using enslaved bodies to cultivate it. Drawing attention to the grotesque violence enacted by colonialism (represented by actor Josh Harnett recurring as various nameless white agents) is not enough. The ideology of Liberal heroes like Edmund Burke and John Locke simultaneously justified the rapacious socio-economic practices of empire, and established a discourse that still overshadows its sheer material violence. The “free market” was only made possible by ensuring many were unfree. To ignore this is to contribute to the “bundles of silences” that, in Trouillot’s words, excise specific experiences from the historical narrative.
What’s particularly frustrating is that the documentary sets up plenty of opportunities to connect the dots, but never explicitly ties them together. The first episode, for example, explores the history of rubber exploitation in the Congo and the barbaric violence the Belgians unleashed upon the Congolese, hacking the hands off those who did not cultivate enough rubber and exterminating anywhere between 1 million and 15 million people. But there is no attempt to connect this to the global system of unequal exchange that prompted such brutality, save a throwaway comment about “Dunlop tires.” Similarly, when discussing how the first American bonds market utilized enslaved bodies as collateral, there is no mention of the inchoate global financial system that sponsored such a grotesque practice. Credit from the Netherlands and London powered the American slave economy, and to point out enslavers and not landlords or financial firms is to leave a task half finished.
This not only provides an incomplete picture of how colonialism operated in the past, but how it continues. The governing ethos of “coloniality,” as Cameroonian intellectual Achille Mbembe described it, thrives decades after the anticolonial movements of the 20th century. Be it India in Kashmir, Israel in Palestine, China’s treatment of the Uighurs, or US foreign policy in West Asia, the violent seizure of land along with the destruction of the native remains the two strands of capitalism’s double helix. In the case of the US, one only needs to look at South Dakota to see how Native tribes’ ties to their land are still considered unimportant in the face of profits.
A particularly jarring omission is the silence on how the colonizer utilized hypersexuality to codify the colonized body as inferior. Like capitalism, this was no mere byproduct of imperialism, but essential to its functioning. For Africans — both enslaved and colonized on the continent — this lens simultaneously stereotyped Black women as being promiscuous and Black men as sexually aggressive. Once again, there are moments which dance close to the topic. The first episode ends in a flurry of archival photos of white men groping Black and indigenous women, followed by cartoons from the same time period of aggressive Black men accosting white women. But this is not mentioned again, and remains one of the few montages that does not tie in to the wider narrative.
The silence is particularly alarming when Peck traces the role Western natural sciences played in the invention of racism. In a striking showcase for how the show’s use of historical reconstruction ranges from confused to counterproductive, one sequence imagines early 19th-century French naturalist and racist Georges Cuvier giving a lecture on inferior “native brains” before a hall full of diverse, disgusted modern audience members. There’s no mention of “Saartjie Baartman,” the name given to an enslaved Khoikhoi woman whom Europeans like Cuvier exhibited as proof of native women’s “freakishness.” Cuvier would later dissect her body. Baartman’s remains were on public display in Paris until 1974, and only repatriated to modern South Africa in 2002. An opportunity to delve into how the bodies of Black women were codified by scientific racism (which continues to shape beauty standards) is instead used to construct an act of superficial defiance, as Peck himself makes an appearance to give Cuvier the middle finger.
“This is a story,” Peck says of his project, “not a contribution to historical research.” But by sticking too closely to Lindqvist’s book (the Cuvier scene is based on a chapter in it), he reproduces its flaws. Some of the most thought-provoking moments in Exterminate All the Brutes come when Peck deals with materials he is intimately familiar with: film, photographs, and documentary footage. From using an upbeat dance tune to score Eva Braun’s home movies to montages of colonial photos set to chilling silence, he creates moments where he actually owns the story he’s telling. It is just a shame that story is incomplete.
Exterminate All the Brutes is available on HBO Max.
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