“The most politically radical and intellectually challenging work of nonfiction ever made for television” Time magazine called “Exterminate All the Brutes”. The new four episode television series tracing the history and origins of Western colonialism was funded by and can be seen on HBO. The director and co-writer of the series, Raoul Peck, comments in one of the episodes, “The very existence of this film is a miracle.” The U.S. website The Intercept agrees and noted it’s no coincidence we had to wait until this time for such a documentary to be made. Its reviewer commented that for AT&T, one of the largest U.S. corporations and owner of HBO, to have funded its making “demonstrates that something profound about the world is changing”.
Peck begins the series by demythologizing the history most citizens have been taught about the United States. President Obama’s declaration that “America was not a colonial nation” is refuted by the film’s assertion that “America IS a colonial nation.” The first episode retells the story of our “settler colonialism” requiring wars on the native American population and the appropriation of their lands and resources.
The prevailing mythology of the U.S. as a beneficent nation of immigrants has been elaborated by those in power from the Pilgrim days to the present. The film’s themes and analysis flow from its change in perspective. “The whole vision of the film is based on changing the point of view of who is telling the story” Peck told one interviewer. In dramatizing the fatal encounter of the Seminole female chief Osceola with a commander of the troops assigned to displace her tribe, the first episode gives voice to those who suffered the consequences of the settlers’ encroachment. “You steal land; you steal life; you steal human beings. What kind of a species are you?” Osceola asks.
In a later episode the film tells the story of the Haitian slave rebellion and the founding in 1804 of the first nation in the Americas to free all human beings on its soil. The Haitian born Peck reminds us that the example of the Haitian revolution and its freed slaves’ democratic rule was widely feared in the U.S. In response the U.S. opposed recognition of the new nation until 1862. Some U.S. political leaders continue to portray Haiti as a “s..hole country” while their powerful northern neighbor continues to corrupt and manipulate Haitian politicians to the present day.
This film represents a powerful tool for those who are committed to this era’s project of truth telling that connects the dots of colonial expansionism with current systems that seek to maintain white supremacy and white privilege. Republican leadership foresees political gain is to be made in defending the prevailing myth of U.S. history. Confronting some of the truth long suppressed is feared as a threat to their power. An April 30 letter of Senate Minority Leader McConnell warned the new administration’s Secretary of Education that “powerful institutions increasingly subject Americans to a drumbeat of revisionism and negativity about our nation’s history and identity”.
There is, however, widespread agreement in the U.S. today that if the nation is to progress in creating the multi-racial society we have envisioned its citizens must come to grips with the legacy of slavery and the expropriation and elimination of native Americans. Decades ago, James Baldwin, the subject of Peck’s previous documentary “I Am Not a Negro”, described well the film’s potential role in helping the change come about in the U.S. “Not everything that is faced can be changed” Baldwin stated. “But nothing can be changed that is not faced.”
Peck’s intention in making the film was not to shame or point fingers at anyone. In interviews he has consistently upheld Baldwin’s position that the truth must be confronted before substantive change can take place. “What must be denounced here is not so much the reality of the Native American genocide, or the reality of slavery, or the reality of the Holocaust” he has said. “What needs to be denounced here are the consequences of these realities in our lives and in life today.”
Adding to the strength of the film’s impact is its placement of U.S. “settler colonialism” in the context of European theories of racial hierarchies and the era of exploration, slave trading and colonial rule. Peck credits three historians including the native American scholar Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz for helping him trace the origin of racial hierarchy schemes with whites at the pinnacle to the Spanish Inquisition. In reclaiming Spain after centuries of Moorish rule, those Arabs and Jews who had converted to Christianity were assigned a lower rank and later persecuted and killed. Doctrines of protecting the purity of race evolved with the Crusades and continued to evolve until deployed to enable the Nazi rise to power in Germany.
Those doctrines maintain their hold in Europe and the U.S. today in the anti-immigration politics and erosion of the human rights of persons of color in many Western countries. An appreciative review of the film in The New Yorker magazine highlights its effective exploration of “the connection of Nazis to the rhetoric, the symbolism, and the violence of current-day white supremacists”. While most advocates for anti-immigrant policies in the U.S. today would bristle at their placement in the supremacist camp, the historical antecedents for their position are powerfully detailed in this film. Peck as narrator notes the word “exterminate” derives from the Latin words meaning “drive out” and “boundaries”.