Genocide at the core of western history in ‘Exterminate All the Brutes’

May 17, 2021

Exterminate All the Brutes

Directed by Raoul Peck

Featuring: Raoul Peck, Josh Hartnett and Casia Ankarsparre

Streaming on

Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck puts forth from the outset of Exterminate All the Brutes that civilisation, colonisation and extermination are the three key concepts that underpin the history of the western world and drive to the core of the United States.

Indeed, the case made throughout the ground breaking — yet harrowing — four-part documentary series is that genocide is an essential aspect of the western expansionist project, not some heinous outcome that could have been avoided.

Exterminate All the Brutes takes its name from a line in Polish writer Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novel The Heart of Darkness, which is set in Belgian occupied Congo. The statement is scrawled on a pamphlet by Colonel Kurtz: a character reinvented by Francis Ford Coppola in 1979’s Apocalypse Now.

A major theme running through Peck’s series is that history tells the story of those in power.

However, the filmmaker inverts this premise by recounting the past five centuries of European colonisation through the lens of the colonised and the oppressed, via a series of vignettes: some factual narrations, others dreamlike sequences.

Peck posits that whether consciously acknowledged or not, the extermination of peoples of colour whilst their lands are forcibly taken is a common European practice, beginning with the conquest of the Americas and leading all the way up to the Holocaust of 6 million Jewish people in the 1940s.

Clearing the land

As Peck tells it, European conquest began with the 12th century Christian Crusades and the takeover of Muslim trade routes in the Far East. While the 1478 Spanish Inquisition’s mandate to investigate the cleanliness of Moorish and Jewish converts’ blood was the precursor to white supremacy.

But the modern European colonising project really came into effect at the end of the 15th century, with Christopher Columbus’ attempt to sail to India, which led to the establishment of a western colony on an island known today as Haiti.

Europeans migrating to the island commenced exterminating and enslaving the Indigenous peoples to acquire their lands, which so troubled Spanish priest Bartolomé de las Casas that he came up with an alternative: use Africans as slaves, rather than the locals, as they shared a common humanity.

Thus, “the Trade” was birthed to facilitate the takeover of the Americas. Ninety percent of First Peoples were wiped out within 100 years, while from 1501–1875, more than 12.5 million people from Africa were shipped across the Atlantic to become the private property of whites.

In Peck’s recounting of western colonisation, the ideology of white supremacy that led to the genocide of the Native Peoples of the Americas also provoked Nazi Germany’s campaign to its East, with its accompanying aim of eliminating Jewish and Slavic peoples.

According to the filmmaker, Germany today stands as the sole scapegoat for a predilection to commit ethnic cleansing that continues to run right through modern western civilisation.

A timely tale

In the documentary’s last episode, Peck states that “the very existence of this film is a miracle”, which is true in the shadow of dominant western narratives. However, Exterminate All the Brutes is also a timely film, as Indigenous and Black voices are rising globally.

Peck unobtrusively weaves his own story through the documentary. Born in Haiti, he spent time in his youth in the Democratic Republic of Congo, was educated in part in the US and attended film school in Berlin.

The writer, director and narrator tips his hat to the historians whose work made it possible to tell this story. These include Swedish author Sven Lindqvist, Haitian academic Michel-Rolph Trouillot and American historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz.

Perhaps Peck’s best-known film prior to this release is the acclaimed 2016 documentary I Am Not Your Negro, which recounts the life of US author James Baldwin and his struggle to expose the oppression of African American people.

Genocide down under

In the third episode, Peck tracks the development of modern weaponry, in which Europeans gained an early advantage. This military superiority resulted in an unfounded belief in the intellectual supremacy of whites, with scientific theories positioned to prop up this ideology.

The documentary doesn’t reflect on the colonisation of Australia. But Peck does venture into the New York City Public Library, where a list of the world’s genocides throughout history is kept.

He visually cascades through a list of 41 genocides. Genocide number 38 is that of the First Nations peoples of Tasmania. Number 41 is the “natives of Australia”.

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