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Review: 'Exterminate All The Brutes' is Tough, but Essential, Viewing

by Kilian Melloy
Wednesday Apr 7, 2021
'Exterminate All The Brutes'
'Exterminate All The Brutes'  (Source:HBO)

Early in the first episode of Raoul Peck's four-part documentary series "Exterminate All the Brutes," an American soldier played by Josh Hartnett murders a Native American woman by shooting her through the head at point-blank range. He does it because the woman's tribe are sheltering a group of runaway slaves and she has had the temerity to refuse his demand that the men be turned over. Moreover, she calls him out on his evident belief that human beings should be treated as property, and that land should be ravaged and left desolate.

Hartnett recurs throughout all four episodes of the series, in different roles - or, rather, the very same role: That of a white man (archetypal, evidently) who has no compunction about killing and little appreciation for the humanity of his victims. He slaughters a man in Africa because the rubber trees are not producing; he hangs a group of men for some unspecified reason (or, perhaps, for no reason at all); he escorts a still another man out of a surgical lecture room where a blatantly racist presentation is taking place and, after bringing him to what looks like a morgue, calmly kills him with a bolt pistol, as if he were nothing more than cattle. All of his victims are people of color.

The point, of course, is that this is more or less how European men have treated others around the world throughout a long and bloody history of colonization, exploitation, greed, and bloodshed. It's an upsetting, sometimes sickening, account, and Peck acknowledges this; still, he doesn't shy away or apologize for the necessity of showing it.

Peck systematically traces about a thousand years of such terrifying, vicious mistreatment, drawing a line between today's white nationalists and the Christian crusaders of a thousand years ago. Then, as now, ideology and religion intersect with economic interests with powerful (and, for many, catastrophic) results. Such is the history of our world, forged not with "guns, germs, and steel," as Peck says, citing the title of a popular book - those are merely the tools of conquest - but from sheer animal violence... specifically, the stripe of violence particular to the human animal.

Europeans have colonized entire continents over the last five centuries, and done so with ruthless efficiency, driving technological innovation along the way. The victims, Peck argues, are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, the unfortunate inhabitants of land that the invaders see as theirs to plunder.

Genocide, then, has been less a goal than a primary effect - not that the conquerors have, historically, much regretted it. Rather, intricate systems of self-sealing rationalization have sprung up to excuse and even demand such slaughters. One argument suggests that "inferior" races are doomed to "die out" anyway - after all, they are inherently weak - and so the proper, and moral, course of action is to help them along toward extinction. (This, too, is a parallel to, or maybe outgrowth from, the sort of rationalizations that accompanied the Crusades: Since the infidel was doomed to damnation, killing him sooner rather than later was a way of saving his soul from the sins an otherwise long life would accumulate.)

Still, however you slice it, genocide is the overriding legacy of colonialism and conquest, and that legacy is with us still; it echoed through the 20th century, after there were no "new" lands to conquer, as Hitler (taking a page from the way American "Manifest Destiny" was perpetrated) cut a bloody swath through Europe in order to secure "lebensraum" for a putative "master race." Moreover, it resounds today, ever more loudly, as white nationalism surges, authoritarianism rises in nations that are steadily losing (or already have lost) democracy, and our civilization's conversation becomes nothing more than "opinions against opinions, shamelessly passing off impudence as reason," as Peck puts it, in one of his many well-turned, precisely worded phrases.

The series takes its title (as did a book by Sven Lindqvist, a friend of Peck's) from a passage in Joseph Conrad's novel "Heart of Darkness." Peck returns again and again to these influences; this is a deeply personal meditation in addition to being a sweeping overview of history as seen from the realpolitik of force and domination.

Peck does a thorough job of covering the history of colonialism and illustrating its effects, and he illustrates the series with clips from movies - his own, and those of others. Along with the clips, he creates well-produced dramatizations intended to encapsulate historic trends and modes of thought and conduct.From time to time Peck allows us to see the artifice of the project, either by letting us see a location shoot for what it is, or by introducing anachronistic elements into a historical setting, or else letting loose with a little cineastic mockery (footage from the John Wayne film "The Alamo" set to the disco hit "Ring My Bell" is a standout moment of cutting, and painfully apt, humor).

But what the historic sweep of the series sweeps over are the deeper questions of why it is human beings behave in these ways. These are patterns of behavior that did not spring into being with the advent of cannons and ships (two of the main technological advances that allowed Europeans to subjugate so much of the globe), and sociologists have long known that groups of people have a way of assuming their own superiority relative to other groups. Give any one group the means and opportunity, and bloodshed, cruelty, and brutish domination will be the result; this isn't a European phenomenon in essence, even if the lottery of historical forces allowed Europeans to become primary perpetrators on a massive scale. (Peck does acknowledge other, more localized, genocides that don't involve Europeans.)

In other words, what is it about people that makes them so greedy, so selfish, so malicious, and so driven? Is it simply a matter of genetic competition, dressed up with ritual, myths, uniforms, and flags? Peck touches on how Darwin's theory of evolution, and the discovery that animal species had once roamed the Earth and then became extinct - novel ideas at first blush, and quickly incorporated into the rationales of empire. But if Peck's idea is to present us with history as a means of asking us to consider what sort of future we're heading for - and what sort of future we want - then it wouldn't have been out of place to ask the question of whether we can choose differently.

After four hours of "Exterminate All the Brutes," you may well feel that the title is a sort of sentence on our kind, or an epitaph carved in advance into human flesh; "civilization" is savage, and the victims of its fathomless rage, hate, and lusts might very well end up comprising the entire human race. Painful as this history is to watch and contemplate, the reasons for it remain veiled, and that might be the most painful thing about the show: The unanswered, perhaps unanswerable, question of Why?

"Exterminate All the Brutes" premieres April 7 on HBO.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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