White supremacy is worth investigating, but HBO’s pretentious & infantile ‘Exterminate All the Brutes’ has nothing original to say
Michael McCaffrey is a writer and cultural critic who lives in Los Angeles. His work can be read at RT, Counterpunch and at his website mpmacting.com/blog. He is also the host of the popular cinema podcast Looking California and Feeling Minnesota. Follow him on Twitter @MPMActingCo
If you’ve ever wanted to know what it feels like to be stuck on a four-hour flight sitting next to a rambling, drunken college student who just read their first book about colonialism, genocide and white supremacy, and mistakenly thinks they have some profound insights, have I got a documentary series for you…
Exterminate All the Brutes is the new unconventional, four-part docu-series from filmmaker Raoul Peck now available on HBO and HBO Max that explores the vast history of colonialism, genocide and white supremacy from a non-white and non-European perspective.
The documentary is based on the books ‘Exterminate all the Brutes’ (Sven Lindqvist), ‘An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States’ (Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz) and ‘Silencing the Past’ (Michel-Rolph Trouillot), and chaotically mixes documentary footage, home movies, popular films, animation and fictional scripted scenes to create a sort of experimental, impressionistic cinematic essay instead of a straightforward documentary.
Exterminate All the Brutes, a phrase which comes from Joseph Conrad’s masterpiece ‘Heart of Darkness’, highlights the greatest hits of horror in the history of humanity and is divided into four parts titled, ‘The Disturbing Confidence of Ignorance’, ‘Who the F*ck is Columbus?’, ‘Killing at a Distance’, and ‘The Bright Colors of Fascism’.
From Europeans explorers, to the plundering of Africa and the slave trade, to the eradication of the Native American population, to Hitler, the Holocaust and the bombing of Hiroshima, the documentary leaves no stone of brutality, barbarity and white supremacy left unturned.
The series attempts to tie together the genocide of the American Indians, slavery and the Holocaust in order to expose the unique evil of white supremacy and its impact on modern Western civilization.
Writer and director Peck, whose documentary on James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro, was nominated for an Academy Award in 2017, should be applauded for his ambition on Exterminate All the Brutes, but certainly not his execution. Ultimately, in his attempt to create a profound, personalized poem, Peck instead produces a painfully pretentious polemic.
The series is not so much thorough as it is cluttered, and while it has a specific topic, it is devoid of a distinct thesis. I would probably agree with Peck’s argument regarding colonialism if I could actually discern what exactly it was. As a result of this lack of a detailed thesis, the documentary comes across as a distracted, incoherent, stream-of-consciousness diatribe fueled by an adolescent, if not infantile, intellectualism. It feels more like a tantrum resulting from deep frustration and helplessness than a dissertation born out of intense study.
Peck’s journey into the heart of darkness of colonialism, slavery and genocide may very well be a noble venture but it is also egregiously narcissistic. Peck not only tells you what he knows, but endlessly recites how and from whom he came to know it.
He also vents his rage at individuals he dislikes, like Donald Trump, and groups he despises, like the Scottish and Irish. Boy, does he have a bug up his ass about the Scottish and Irish.
Peck’s anger also distorts his argument as he makes contradictory statements regarding his flawed premise. For instance, he brushes aside the ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ hypothesis and calls early Europeans backward and uncivilized, but then describes how Europeans came to dominate African peoples simply because they were able to create advanced technology and weapons that Africans could not.
The greatest flaw of the documentary, though, and there are many, is that as it guides viewers through the history of white European atrocities, it never breaks new ground or reveals unearthed truths. Anyone with half a brain in their head is aware of the horrors of colonialism, slavery and genocide by now. The fact that the US was born on the back of African slaves and the genocide of American Indians isn’t exactly breaking news. But as Peck himself states in the film, “it is not knowledge that we lack,” which begs the question: if we don’t lack knowledge, then what is the purpose of this four-hour monstrous mess of a docu-series?
Peck is also his own worst enemy as a storyteller as he narrates the series and his voiceover is, without exaggeration, the worst in the history of the spoken word. Never has someone talked so much (and so inaudibly) and said so little. His droning, garbled voice isn’t helped by the insipid platitudes he mutters like “neutrality is not an option” and “there are no alternative facts.”
That sort of overwrought emotionalism and intellectual vapidity is the lifeblood of Exterminate All the Brutes. This is most evident in the cringe-inducing and laughably ludicrous scripted dramatic scenes haphazardly inserted throughout the series.
Actor Josh Hartnett is tasked with playing the embodiment of white supremacy and white privilege throughout history in the series of amateurish scenes, and his performance entails shooting a lot of brown people in the head and looking menacingly at the ones he hasn’t killed.
These scenes, and the scenes from Peck’s earlier dramatic films that are also shown, reveal the director to be a middling-at-best filmmaker, and Exterminate All the Brutes seems to be a case of an artist and pseudo-intellectual biting off considerably more than he could ever possibly chew.
In conclusion, I watched Exterminate All the Brutes so that you don’t have to. And trust me, you don’t have to… you really don’t have to.
Think your friends would be interested? Share this story!
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.