Raoul Peck’s 2014 drama Murder in Pacot is a sweaty, outdoor masterpiece. Set amid the ruins of a stylish, modern home in the chaotic days after an earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, the couple who own it endure a Beckettian reversal of fortune. Played by the graceful Ayọ and Claire Denis favorite Alex Descas, they are forced to rent out the remains of their house to a creepy white aid worker, while they live in an unglazed shed and their clothing turns to rags. When the tenant brings home a flirtatious young stranger, the mounting tension breaks, along with a rainstorm and everybody’s self-control.
It couldn’t be more different from Peck’s latest project, Exterminate All the Brutes, a four-part documentary history of colonial violence that recently premiered on HBO. Both consider the persistent traumas wrought by European imperialism, but Murder in Pacot is full of silences, occasionally baffling, and slow. Exterminate All the Brutes, by contrast, is aimed squarely at a popular audience, much in the style of his hit 2016 documentary about James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro.
Among the many success stories of the turn to race-consciousness in American entertainment in recent years, that documentary’s appeal has proved enduring. It’s compelling for the specificity of its many braided stories. Peck weaves his own itinerant family history into clips of Baldwin’s flawless oratory on the racism inherent to American art forms like, say, the classic Western movie, and on the cumulative effect those art forms had on people like Baldwin.
It’s a complex message presented simply, an achievement that ironically requires a lot of work. Over the course of his career, which has ranged from short documentary to feature-length dramas to politics (he was the minister for culture in Haiti from 1996 to 1997), Peck has collaborated with historians like the late Michel-Rolph Trouillot to create films that argue that much of contemporary life is the consequence of crimes against human beings perpetrated by Europeans and their descendants over the last few hundred years of world history.
As befits such an ambitious theme, Exterminate All the Brutes is the most wide-ranging of his works to date. In it, he lays out the history of race-based violence as defined by postcolonial scholars of history, like Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak or Franz Fanon, who have worked to dismantle the myths (the white man’s burden, manifest destiny, Aryanism, et al) that disguise whiteness as “natural,” or a default state of being.
After European mercantilism exploded into early forms of empire in the 16th century, the ensuing markets of enslavement and exploitation fostered a logic of racial hierarchy that persists into the present day. Peck shows history rhyming at a distance, connecting modern racist violence in America to the genocide of the indigenous peoples of many different nations.
The Holocaust, in his argument, was made possible by what whites did to brown and Black people in places far from Europe. There were concentration camps in south-west Africa before there were concentration camps on European soil, he explains, almost gently. Showing a photograph of a pile of shoes at Auschwitz, he describes seeing exactly the same pile of shoes in Rwanda. “Beneath the numbers, there are faces,” Peck says. “There are souls.”
The series features scripted “reconstructions” that star Josh Hartnett as the paradigmatic white man with a gun. He pops up in moments from all over history, and in many different places, frequently shooting women and children. Hartnett’s performance is understated—his sheer tightlipped presence is enough to drive the message home that the raw threat of interpersonal violence is the consistent factor in colonial violence.
Other devices are more simplistic. Exterminate All the Brutes features frequent slides of animated text, for example, flashing words up on the screen, like “domination” or “rape.” What seems like the occasional messy translation sneaks in. But overall it works: Big red letters tend to stick in the memory.
Several critics have called Exterminate All the Brutes “dizzying” because of the large scale of its vision, but really Peck has been delivering the same fairly orthodox and comprehensive argument again and again, in different ways, since he released his first documentary, about a Cuban choir touring West Berlin, in 1982.
This show is direct where Peck’s other films, like the corruption story Assistance Mortelle (Fatal Assistance) (2014) or Murder in Pacot are circuitous; graphic where Moloch Tropical (2009) is subtle. If it lies at one end of a spectrum ranging from Peck’s most to least accessible works, Murder in Pacot is at the other, and in the middle lie his traditional thrillers, like Lumumba—his biopic of the Congolese leader assassinated in 1961—and the Rwanda movie Sometimes in April (2005). But all of them are about dealing with the trauma done to this world by European imperialism, and insist on remembering its true origins.
Access to the facts is not the real problem in modern society, Peck points out, although of course “at all times it has also been profitable to deny or suppress … knowledge” about how many people really died in places like Kigali, Baghdad, or Louisiana. What seems to be at stake now is whether or not the average person thinks that all those deaths mattered, or ought to be considered in some way when deciding how to organize contemporary societies.
Conservatives who would smear Peck and other proponents of anti-colonial analysis as oppressive cancel culturists are peddling a very old and popular product: the bliss of forgetting. Those who favor forgetting colonialism offer whites a way to erase what they have in many cases learned suddenly and traumatically over the past few years about the humanity of other people. In such a light, American conservatives are the radicals and extremists, proposing to erase the painstaking work that historians have done to revise the legacy of empire over the last half-century. What we choose to forget, Peck observes, makes itself known in our nightmares.