Exterminate All The Brutes is a four-part examination by Raoul Peck, a Haitian filmmaker who is probably best known for the documentary I Am Not Your Negro, of how colonialism and white supremacy has dominated the culture and history of the West for centuries. It not only gives light to a more realistic view of our country’s history, it examines the roots of the white supremacy that continues to permeate Western societies to this day.
Opening Shot: A shot of a woman staring into the camera. “This is Abie Osilla. She is from the Seminole nation,” says director Raoul Peck. “Her story goes deep into the history of this continent. She reminds me of my mother.”
The Gist: The first episode tries to pull the threads of colonialism in the United States together, with its influences dating back to the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition. His message in the first episode is that the U.S. has been interested in colonialism from the start, as much as we’ve been taught otherwise.
To prove this, he not only discusses the European explorers who came to the Western Hemisphere in the 15th and 16th centuries and fought and enslaved the indigenous people of whichever region in which they landed, but of the westward push of the U.S. settlement movement in the 19th century. Through dramatic reenactments starring Josh Hartnett, Peck shows the cruelty of the U.S. Army as it fought indigenous tribes during the push westward, especially when tribes like the Seminoles gave refuge to enslaved Blacks who had escaped their owners. Hartnett also plays a rubber plantation owner in the Congo, who cuts off the hands of workers who refuse to harvest rubber for him for no pay.
Peck also discusses how the idea of “exterminate all the brutes,” a line from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and the title of a book by his friend Sven Lindqvist, has permeated the idea of white supremacy since those early days. It’s the notion that the non-white, indigenous people of a region are considered “brutish” and “animalistic” by European explorers; since they’re too “savage” to negotiate with, the alternative is to kill them and keep the purity of the Europeans’ race intact. As he demonstrates through pictures of mass graves taken over the past 150 years, this is a notion that continues in modern times, from Nazi Germany through Rwanda and even the increased visibility of white supremacists in the U.S. and Europe over the past half-decade.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? There aren’t too many docuseries on white colonialism out there, but Exterminate All The Brutes is a good companion piece to PBS’s docuseries The Black Church: This Is Our Song, mainly because there is some theme overlap with regards to how enslaved people in America lived their lives under the thumb of white owners.
Our Take: What Raoul Peck is trying to accomplish in Exterminate All The Brutes is admirable; he is trying to collect 1200 years of white colonialism and relate it back to where we are as a society in the first part of the 21st century. It’s a Herculean task, for sure, especially as he tries to wrangle this history into thematic episodes instead of just telling it in chronological order.
But through the hopscotching, Peck imparts a powerful, albeit brutal and grim message: White colonialism has been with us for centuries, and it still influences our lives to this day. Could we do with less film clips that stand in for various historical events? Maybe. But at the very least, Peck utilizes the reenactments to give the most impact; in them, he shows the brutality of white conquerors in living, moving color; it’s especially horrifying when we see Hartnett’s general take the scalp of the Seminole woman he shot point blank in the head before his men destroyed their village.
Exterminate All The Brutes can be a grim exercise at times, but it’s an important one, just to give some perspective on the ingrained history we’re trying to fight off as a society in 2021 but — as we saw during the Trump presidency — can’t quite kill completely.
Parting Shot: Drawings of dark-skinned barbarians holding and taking white women with “Machine Gun” by the Commodores playing in the background.
Sleeper Star: Hartnett has a rough job, playing two brutal killers in two different locales in two different eras, but he pulls the roles off well; he shows the cold cruelty of Western attitudes towards “brutes” who do their bidding for them very well.
Most Pilot-y Line: None.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Despite starting off a bit all over the place, Raoul Peck’s Exterminate All The Brutes has a lot to say about a part of Western civilization’s history that absolutely needs to see the light of day.
Joel Keller () writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.
Stream Exterminate All The Brutes On HBO Max