THE DARKEST HOURS
May 7, 2021
Raul Peck’s latest movie, Exterminate All the Brutes, currently streaming on HBO Max in the United States, is an abyss of horror that unearths hundreds of years of colonialist terror.
Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) is a stone-cold classic in the history of literature. While it has drawn criticism, particularly from African scholars like Chinua Achebe, who find it irredeemably racist, the novel is usually hailed as one of the first literary critiques of European imperialism—a demonstration of distaste and disbelief regarding the presumed superiority of white men. Charles Marlow is the primary narrator. Marlow had previously appeared in Conrad’s short story “Youth” (1898) and would come back in Lord Jim (1900) and Chance (1913). He was loosely based on the sixteenth-century English playwright and poet Christopher Marlowe, whose plays were noted for their humanist stance and unflinching portraits of extreme cruelty and bloodshed.
Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad, 1899)
Heart of Darkness takes us down the Congo River to a trading post where the ivory trader Kurtz rules over a vast, unnamed territory, generally understood to be the Congo Free State (privately owned by King Leopold II of Belgium). Kurtz is worshiped by the natives as a godlike figure and rules with the iron fist of a tyrannical messiah. Marlow describes him as megalomaniacal yet well educated, half English and half French (and thus fully European), and half-conscious half-unconscious, suffering from hallucinations caused by the jungle fever that ultimately kills him. Just before his death, Kurtz hands Marlow a note that reads, “Exterminate all the brutes!”
Apocalypse Now (Frances Ford Coppola, 1979)
Probably the most famous adaptation of Heart of Darkness is Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film Apocalypse Now. Coppola transplants the action from central Africa to Southeast Asia/French Indochina during the Vietnam War to again highlight the horrors and senselessness of the armed conflicts that are a brutal consequence of colonialism. Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando, is introduced as a US Special Forces colonel who has gone rogue with his brigade at an outpost in Cambodia. Without directions or permission from US military authorities, he is fighting a vicious and merciless guerrilla war against the Vietnamese People’s Army. Captain Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen) is tasked with finding and terminating Kurtz “with extreme prejudice.” While Coppola replaces European colonialism with US-American interventionism, the original idea of Conrad’s book is still vividly apparent.
Earlier this month, the Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck released his latest documentary, a history of white colonialism and European imperialism, as a four-part series on HBO Max titled Exterminate All the Brutes. It is based on the 1996 book of the same title by Swedish writer Sven Lindqvist. Peck has made movies about African and Haitian history for decades; he first came on the scene with his 2000 biopic Lumumba, about the Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba, and became more broadly known in 2005 thanks to Sometimes in April, about the mid-1990s genocide in Rwanda. Peck was recently nominated for an Academy Award for the much-praised I Am Not Your Negro (2016), about the Black writer and poet James Baldwin and his observations on racism in the United States.
Exterminate All the Brutes is more ambitious than Peck’s previous films and could be regarded as a culmination of all his work to date. The long history depicted reaches back, in nonchronological fashion, to the Crusades; the Spanish Inquisition and its persecution of Jews and Muslims; the establishment of the so-called New World, which went hand in hand with the genocide of most of the Americas’ Indigenous populations; the European enslavement of Africans in the Americas and the Caribbean; the imperialist conquest of Africa and Asia; and the Holocaust, the systematic, industrialized extermination of Jews and other so-called degenerate minorities under Nazi rule in Europe. As Peck puts it, “The road to Auschwitz was paved in the earliest days of Christendom, and this road also leads straight to the heart of America.”
Exterminate All the Brutes (Roul Peck, 2021)
Peck paints with broad brushstrokes, to great emotional effect. For him, three terms sum up the history of the world: civilization, colonization, and extermination. He is interested in understanding and clarifying how history is produced and written as the record of a particular (read: winning) worldview. In this story, thousands of crimes are never told, yet these crimes, in Peck’s opinion, are the very foundations of much of the Western world’s wealth and presumption of white supremacy—the idea that domination of others is a legitimate “authorization for abuse, a justification for eternal immunity.”
It would be too ambitious to cover all crimes against humanity, several severe ones are not mentioned, yet one wonders about the rationale behind the decisions. Stalin’s gulags, and genocidal left-wing dictatorships such as Pol Pot’s, are not touched upon. Nor is the current Uyghur genocide in China, which goes hand in hand with the mass sterilization of women, or the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar. We can add to this awful list South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir’s ethnic cleansing campaign against the Dinka’s leading rival ethnic group, the Nuer. Out of war-torn Syria and Iraq in 2014 and 2015, ISIS began the systematic extermination of various non-Muslim communities and ethnic groups, including Yazidis and Shiites in Iraq and Assyrian Christians.
In Peck’s movie, we wait forever to be told about these atrocities. He does, however, make some crucial historical connections that have rarely, if ever, been explicitly formulated. This gives us enormous food for thought, yet for those less familiar with the history of colonialism and twentieth-century genocide, the story might seem overwhelming and perhaps even one-dimensional.
Peck certainly has done his homework in regard to the theories that over the last four decades have contributed to our evolving understanding of decolonization and the postcolonial. The backbone of this film stands on the shoulders of writers such as Stuart Hall, Paul Gilroy, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Édouard Glissant, Homi K. Bhabha, Aimé Césaire, and Edward Said, to mention only a few prominent ones. In addition to the Lindqvist book, Peck cites Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot as well as Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (2014) as significant points of departure for this latest film. The three authors are even honorifically credited as codirectors.
Josh Hartnett in Exterminate All the Bruts (Roul Peck, 2021)
I can’t help thinking that a hard-hitting miniseries outlining the history of what Peck describes as “the presumption of white supremacy” seems a rather radical undertaking for HBO. Case in point: HBO also just released the latest film adaptation of Mortal Kombat, based on the ultra-violent 1992 video game of the same name, which was banned in Germany, Brazil, China, Australia, Japan, and other countries for decades. Indeed, one would expect to encounter Exterminate All the Brutes at a film festival, or an art-house cinema in a coastal city or university town.
An interesting and novel device that Peck develops throughout are the dramatic scenes (and at one point even animations) that he inserts into an otherwise rather traditional documentary format. In these scenes, Hollywood heartthrob Josh Hartnett plays various white-supremacist tyrants, slave masters, and other genocidal monsters, either reenacted or semi-fictional. Also interestingly, clips from existing movies are inserted to demonstrate the persistence of white supremacy in Hollywood film, from such right-wing heroes as John Wayne to musicals featuring Frank Sinatra as a sailor in the South Pacific making fun of the ingenious population to the over-aestheticized, fascist propaganda movies of Leni Riefenstahl.
One cannot deny the effort and good intentions behind Peck’s latest effort. But if this sounds like a rather depressing way to spend a few evenings in front of your television, it largely is. The history it outlines is overwhelming, depressing, lacking even one upbeat moment. As Peck succinctly puts it: “History does not have an upbeat ending.” In large part, most of us would agree and have been aware of this history for a long time. “It is not knowledge we lack,” Peck observes. “What is missing is the courage to understand what we know and to draw conclusions.” What those conclusions might be is never clearly stated, although Peck insists that we now have the tools to leave behind the atrocities of the past rather than blindly follow populist demagogues such as Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Vladimir Putin, or Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (he fails to mention Xi Jinping).
Christopher Colombus Statue Vandalizd, Washington D.C.
The final episode is particularly interesting for several reasons. It seems that Peck did not know where to end; there are probably five endings presented, and whenever we think we have seen enough horror, he pulls out an even grimmer, more violent picture, montage, or clip. One of the very first scenes in episode 1 showed a white US soldier scalping a Native American woman. And now, at the very end of part 4, we see a long drone flight over Auschwitz-Birkenau against an audio track of people yelling what sounds like “Black Lives Matter.” This is where it all ends, then: in death, not in rebirth.