The unusual but effective HBO series makes its points with classic film clips, animated graphics and vignettes starring Josh Hartnett.
When we say Raoul Peck’s four-part HBO hybrid documentary/drama series “Exterminate All the Brutes” is all over the place, we mean that on so many levels, and mostly in a good way — though there are a few times when the shift in tone and approach is so swift and radical it’s more jolting than resonant.
In the first episode alone, Peck tells us, “There are three words that summarize the whole history of humanity: civilization, colonization, extermination”; delivers relatively brief but visually stunning and enlightening lessons derived from the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the “discovery” of America and the Vietnam War; introduces Josh Hartnett, who will portray various imperialist characters throughout the series; shows modern-day footage of white supremacist groups gathering and marching in a number of nations, including the United States; features clips from films ranging from “Apocalypse Now” to “Shoah” to “The Legend of Tarzan,” and closes with a series of graphic-novel images of African men terrorizing and assaulting white women while “Machine Gun” by the Commodores blasts on the soundtrack, for no easily discernible reason.
There’s a LOT of material packed into each one-hour episode. More often than not, Peck (director of “I Am Not Your Negro”) does a remarkably effective job of weaving all these disparate parts into a narrative about the blood-soaked history of Western nations and peoples invading countries and territories and wiping out civilizations in the belief they were the superior race and were taking their rightful place in the world.
Early on, Peck introduces to a Seminole Nation woman who looks into the camera as he says, “Her story goes deep into the history of this continent.” We then flash-frame to an image of the woman being scalped, as Peck continues, “Her story reminds me of my mother.” Next thing we know, we see the woman on location with a film crew who are wearing masks and practicing social distancing, and Peck tells us the Seminole woman is being “played by Caisa Ankarsparre, a Swedish actress of both Colombian and Native American ancestry.” Moments later, we’re in a movie-within-the movie. Josh Hartnett as an American soldier approaches the woman and a group of Seminoles and slaves and says, “I do not want to spill Seminole blood, kill Seminole children. … Give us back the American property you stole … and I’ll let you move to the Indian territory the U.S. government has provided for your people.”
“What kind of species are you?” she asks.
“This kind,” he says, as he draws his gun and kills her.
At times Peck employs more traditional documentary narratives, with maps and time-lapse graphics and news footage, home movies and animation — but even those segments are intercut with the likes of references to Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” a clip from Leni Reifenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will,” a scene from “Jurassic Park 3,” even the “Prehistoric Man” musical number from 1949’s “On the Town.” (The series doesn’t feature any talking-head interviews, and as much as I admire and appreciate the legions of experts who appear in most documentaries, it’s a welcome and refreshing break to see this wide-ranging, centuries-spanning story told without this particular device.) The animated graphics are particularly stunning and effective, e.g., when a time-lapse shows the steady move westward of tribes disappearing from America, or the number of captives sent from Africa to the Americas, with the tally reaching the thousands and eventually 12 million.
Peck also takes us through his personal journey, including his childhood in Haiti through his time as a student in Germany, and introduces us to collaborators including Sven Lindqvist (who died in 2019), author of the 1992 book with the same title as this documentary. The juxtaposition of historical re-creations set in a myriad of locales throughout history with incongruous pop songs, e.g., Joe Cocker’s “Cry Me a River,” can be dizzying and borderline wearying; there are moments when we yearn for Peck to stick to a particular narrative a while longer and not be so fast with the edit button.
But there’s no denying the power of Peck’s storytelling abilities, as he consistently ties the distant past to the recent past to the very recent past and has us wondering if the world will ever truly change. As we see photos of certain current and former world leaders, Peck laments, “The absence of any trace of empathy and genuine humanity is unbearable. The nightmare is buried deep in our consciousness. So deep that we do not recognize it at first. … In times of despair, fear and insecurity, people are looking for saviors. Any kind will do … but a complex world calls for complex responses.” The approach Peck takes in “Exterminate All the Brutes” is a thought-provoking and worthwhile and, yes, complex response.