‘Exterminate All the Brutes’: Heart of darkness, head of profit
Caisa Ankarsparre, center, in 'Exterminate All the Brutes.' | Velvet Film / David Koskas via HBO

Raoul Peck’s new four-part HBO series Exterminate All the Brutes is a powerful, well-illustrated essay on racism. Peck skillfully tours us through twelve painful centuries of prejudice-based inhumanity toward the goal of wealth accumulation. Each of his episodes is about an hour long.

Peck is well-known for such penetrating, urgent films as I Am Not Your Negro, The Young Karl Marx, and Lumumba.

Peck’s sometimes quite personal, subjective arguments, stunning photography, florid dioramas, and ample historical data are breathtaking and persuasive. The sweep of his observations shines a bright light on the dark side of history. The use of Joseph Conrad’s quote from The Heart of Darkness to title his conversation on race and power could not be more appropriate.

Exterminate All the Brutes leans heavily on history, particularly the work of three of the filmmaker’s prominent friends: Sven Lindqvist, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. He walks us through the undeniable consequences of uneven development. Imperialism may be the highest stage of capitalism. But its brutality exacts the most gruesome toll in mass murders, starvations, pogroms, and the environmental degradation that threatens wholesale extinction.

The story really lays its tracks in the Crusades, when the Christian European monarchies decided to take over Muslim-controlled trade routes to the Far East. Conquest of wealth was given reason by religion and race. The “clean blood” of Christians sought to enslave or exterminate the “unclean blood” of Moors and Jews.

Peck draws a straight, if too abrupt, line from Dark Ages Crusades and Inquisition through the African slave trade to the mass extermination of Jews in the Holocaust. Crowds cheer Hitler’s quest to protect racial purity against the backdrop of Leni Reifenstahl’s 1935 Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will. The early Church’s sponsorship of racial extermination runs through colonial conquest of the Western Hemisphere’s native populations to Nazi concentration camps to modern Western evangelical racism.

The earliest colonial founders in the Americas found pious justification for killing, maiming, and enslaving the natives they thought were blocking their path to riches. Even when natives generously offered assistance and sharing, the “enlightened” Spanish, English, and French colonists waged wars of elimination and exile. Conflicts continued from colonial days through Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal efforts and the Trail of Tears displacement of most of the native population of the Southeast.

At times Peck’s march through the catalogue of inhumanities gets bogged down in personal recollections or uneven sidetracks back and forth in time. Perhaps adopting a stricter chronological or geographic framework would have been of greater help to the viewer.

Still, the main arguments are ultimately well served by the filmmaker’s explanation of how technology and European civilization, and spirituality served as tools in the hands of the invaders.  Weapons development insured world domination by European countries. All the while, religion, culture, and nationalism underpinned the Zeitgeist of profit.

Europeans started mistaking military superiority for intellectual, cultural, and even biological superiority. This perceived superiority demanded they fulfill their role. Anticipating current pro-white supremacist evangelicals, the influential 19th-century Rev. Josiah Strong preached, “We have a responsibility to control the world.”

Writer-director Raoul Peck’s Exterminate All the Brutes preaches that we have a responsibility to fight this imperialism that wraps itself in racism to exterminate the non-white citizens of the world. Acknowledging its existence is only the first step!

Readers can view an interview with Raoul Peck here. Here is a trailer for the series.


Michael Berkowitz
Michael Berkowitz

Michael Berkowitz, a veteran of the civil rights and anti-war movements, has been Land Use Planning Consultant to the government of China for many years. He taught Chinese and American History at the college level, worked with Eastern Kentucky Welfare Rights Org. with miners, and was an officer of SEIU. He has served as a supernumerary with the San Francisco Opera for years without getting to sing a single note on stage!