“Exterminate All the Brutes”: Filmmaker Raoul Peck Explores Colonialism & Origins of White Supremacy

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A new four-part documentary series, “Exterminate All the Brutes,” delves deeply into the legacy of European colonialism from the Americas to Africa. It has been described as an unflinching narrative of genocide and exploitation, beginning with the colonizing of Indigenous land that is now called the United States. The documentary series seeks to counter “the type of lies, the type of propaganda, the type of abuse, that we have been subject to all of these years,” says director and Haitian-born filmmaker Raoul Peck. “We have the means to tell the real story, and that’s exactly what I decided to do,” Peck says. “Everything is on the table, has been on the table for a long time, except that it was in little bits everywhere. … We lost the wider perspective.”

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StoryMay 04, 2021“Exterminate All the Brutes”: Filmmaker Raoul Peck Explores Colonialism & Origins of White Supremacy
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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Republican lawmakers are continuing their attack on schools for teaching students about the true history of the United States, from the genocide of Native Americans to the legacy of slavery. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell recently criticized the Department of Education for promoting what he described as revisionist history, including The New York Times 1619 Project, which reexamined the pivotal role slavery played in the founding of the United States. In his letter, Mitch McConnell wrote, quote, “Americans never decided our children should be taught that our country is inherently evil,” unquote.

Well, today we begin our show looking at an epic new television series that delves deeply into a history Mitch McConnell would prefer not be taught: the legacy of European colonialism, from the Americas to Africa. This is a trailer for Exterminate All the Brutes, the new series directed by the Haitian-born filmmaker Raoul Peck.

RAOUL PECK: There is something we need to talk about, three words that summarize the whole history of humanity: civilization, colonization, extermination. This is the origin of the ideology of white supremacy. This is me in the middle, and I just want to understand: Why do I bring myself into this story? Because I am an immigrant from a [bleep] hole country. Neutrality is not an option. It’s time to own up to a basic truth, a story of survival and violence. We know now what their task truly is: Exterminate All the Brutes.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the trailer for the epic HBO documentary series Exterminate All the Brutes, which is available on HBO and HBO Max. Time magazine said the series, quote, “may well be the most politically radical and intellectually challenging work of nonfiction ever made for television.”

Well, Democracy Now!’s Nermeen Sheikh and I recently interviewed Raoul Peck, the Haitian filmmaker who directed Exterminate All the Brutes. He joined us from Paris, France. His past films include I Am Not Your Negro, about James Baldwin, Lumumba, about the Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, and The Young Karl Marx. I asked Raoul Peck to talk about how he went from making a film about James Baldwin to creating Exterminate All the Brutes.

RAOUL PECK: Basically, after I Am Not Your Negro, I went throughout the world with the film. I was fortunate to be able to see how the film was received in many different places. And one of the common threads through that was the type of reaction that you just mentioned, like Senate Leader Mitch McConnell. You know, this denial is somehow a sign that they feel that they are entrenched now, they are attacked. There is great fear about some sort of civilization going overboard.

And for me, it’s a symbol that the type of lies, the type of propaganda, the type of abuse that we have been subject to for during all these years. I am old enough to have heard many other people, like Rick Santorum, Mitch McConnell and many others throughout the years. The only difference now is that we have the means to counter them. We have the means to tell the real story.

And that’s exactly what I decided to do, to, once for all, put everything on the table without any semblance of holding back my punches. Everything is on the table, have been on the table for a long time, except that it was in little bits everywhere, because science, sociology, anthropology, etc., politics, have been cut up in little pieces, so we lost the wider perspective. And the film does exactly that, to bring us to the core story, to have the whole matrix of the last 700 years of basically Eurocentric ideology and narrative.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Raoul Peck, in providing this broader historical context, you trace the origins of contemporary modern forms of biological racism to the Spanish Inquisition and the so-called purity of blood statutes — that is, limpieza de sangre

RAOUL PECK: Exactly.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: — that was a means of distinguishing old Christians from conversos — that is, Jews but also Moors — from the pure blood of Christians. These laws, you say, are the antecedents of the ideology of white supremacy. For the first time in the world, the idea of race based on blood was enshrined into law. So, how should we understand the continuities between the purity of blood statutes and the forms of racist violence we witness today? Because the entire argument of this truly magnificent work is that the past is not really past. It is, as you say, the past has a future that we can’t anticipate.

RAOUL PECK: Well, the thing is that we are accustomed to not see history as a continuity, as you say. And we came from a very specific history. And we are not some sort of tribalist tribe that came out of nowhere. Today’s civilization is basically embedded in the capitalistic societies. And that story started around the 10th and 11th century with the first accumulation of riches, accompanied by killing and exiling of Jews, killing Muslims, trying to go all the way to Jerusalem. And those first Crusades were able to create a lot of — or not create, to basically extract a lot of riches that allows the monarchy to be able to finance trips to discovering new roads to the East.

And the accident, which it was, of the so-called discovery of the new continent was not something they planned. And when it happened, they basically created a totally new concept, which is the concept of discovery. And from that day on, you know, you could just go somewhere, put a flag, deploy military flags and say, “This is mine,” no matter who was on that land before.

And I remind you that at the time of Columbus, there were basically 100 million people on both continents in America. So, you can imagine what it meant. Within a hundred years, more than 90% of them were totally annihilated. So, it’s a very specific moment in the history of the modern world. For the U.S., it seems like it’s the beginning of a new world, but it’s not. It’s a continuity of a lot of action that have been the source of European civilization, basically.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to a clip from Exterminate All the Brutes, where you explain settler colonialism.

RAOUL PECK: From the beginning, the extension of the United States from sea to shining sea was the intention and design of the country’s founders. Free land was a magnet that attracted European settlers. This particular form of colonialism is called settler colonialism. But as a system, it requires violence. It requires the elimination of the Natives and their replacement by European settlers.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is another clip from your series, Exterminate All the Brutes. In this dramatized scene, a white man, played by the actor Josh Hartnett, engages in a standoff with a Native American woman leader.

GEN. THOMAS SIDNEY JESUP: [played by Josh Hartnett] I do not want to spill Seminole blood, kill Seminole children, Seminole women. Give us back the American property you stole from our good fellowman planters and settlers, and I will let you move to the Injun territory the U.S. government has provided for your people.

ABBY OSCEOLA: [played by Caisa Ankarsparre] You call human beings your property?

GEN. THOMAS SIDNEY JESUP: They’re slaves.

ABBY OSCEOLA: You steal land. You steal life. You steal humans. What kind of species are you?

AMY GOODMAN: So, we were listening to Abby Osceola, or the woman who plays her, of the Seminole Nation. You say her story goes deep into the history of this continent. Talk about who she is and why you choose to center her and the Seminole Nation in the first part of your series, including their solidarity with enslaved Africans.

RAOUL PECK: Well, the whole vision of the film is based in changing totally the point of view of who is telling the story. And in particular, because this story not only center from Europe but also center in the bottom or in the middle of the United States of America, I had to start the film from that particular point of view of this woman who is the head of her tribe, of her nation.

And basically, you know, the Seminole have been one of the rare tribes who were never really — who did not really obey to the enforcement of leaving their territories. And they were called the Invisible Tribe for a reason. So, it was important for me to start it from a point of resistance, from a point of an individual, of a woman. And watching this invader basically telling her to leave her land and to deliver the slaves that were — and, of course, you know, that’s a story that is not really well known, that a lot of slaves who escaped were welcomed by Seminoles and other tribes. And I wanted to start with that symbolic moment of resistance and also of solidarity, and from there, deploy the whole rest of the story.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Raoul, that is in one of the forms of continuity that you point to. The story of Native Americans is absolutely critical. And the erasure of this genocidal history, in particular in the United States, is evidenced, as you show, in the perverse use of Native American names and designations for military weapons, from Black Hawk to Apache, as well as military operations, the most recent and proximate of which was the May 2011 operation named Geronimo to assassinate Osama bin Laden. So, could you talk a little bit more about that, the way in which Native American history has been distorted, if not entirely erased, and the uses to which it’s been put in contemporary U.S. politics?

RAOUL PECK: Well, it’s clear that — and you see that throughout the film through different type of device or type of stories, level of stories in the film, is how everything is somehow connected. You know, the history of the Native American, which is, for me, the core story, whether it has been pushed out and erased sometimes or told the wrong way, it’s like a phantom. It’s already there. You can’t get rid of it. There are so many skeletons in those boxes, that they come up. And they are more and more coming out.

And it’s ironic that the very powerful U.S. Army, who was basically at its core created not only to fight the British at the beginning, but after independence was basically used to kill Indians and to keep slaves, Black slaves, on the plantations. So, basically, the U.S. Army, at the beginning, was the militia, you know? So, this story continues. It’s basically a story of 200 years, which is — in the whole history of humankind is nothing. So, as long — you can try to repress that story, but it’s coming out there. You know, as long as there will be Native American or there will be Black life, they will continue to tell that story. There is no escape from it.

And that’s why what I was saying at the beginning — you know, when you see people like Rick Santorum saying that, “Well, when we came, there was nobody on this land” — what did you do with the 100 million people? You have to explain that. So, it’s really — it becomes more and more absurd that Republican leadership at that level are capable of such ignorance. You know, it’s mind-bending. So, for me, it’s just the logic of the whole story. And that’s what we try to explain and to tell in this story of Exterminate All the Brutes. And I really — my objective is really to make sure that that kind of ignorance cannot be voiced anymore.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Raoul, another possible form of repression, another idea that has been repressed, is something that Sven Lindqvist, in his extraordinary book Exterminate All the Brutes, from which your film substantially draws, he shows how closely intertwined the idea of progress is with racism and even genocide. What alternatives do you see to this ideology, and where do you see it, if at all, taking shape?

RAOUL PECK: Well, it’s a very complicated question to answer. And I don’t really go by that way in assessing what the future will be or what are the solution. I think any solution will first have to start with the real story. We need to sit down around the same table and agree on the diagnostic. We have to agree on the genocide. We have to agree in the whole line of history that’s been going on for more than 700 years. Otherwise, there is no conversation possible. So, I am not, and we are not, if I can speak for many others, it’s not about revenge. It’s not about — you know, it’s about let’s see the world as it is and let’s name all the things that happened and bring us to what the world is today. That’s what it is about. It’s not about showing how culprit you are or not. It’s about acknowledging the past and the present, because they are strongly connected.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Raoul Peck, the acclaimed Haitian-born filmmaker, who then grew up in the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as the United States. He is the director of the new HBO four-part documentary series Exterminate All the Brutes. We continue our conversation after break.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “American Dream” by J.S. Ondara, one of the songs featured in the series Exterminate All the Brutes. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. If you want to get our daily email digest of news, headlines, stories and alerts, send the word “democracynow” — one word, without a space — to 66866. Text the word “democracynow” — one word, without a space — to 66866.

We are continuing now with our conversation with Raoul Peck, the Haitian-born director of the new HBO four-part documentary series Exterminate All the Brutes. I want to go to another clip, from the second episode in the series, where Raoul Peck — he is the narrator of this series — explains what happened after Columbus arrived in what is now Haiti, where Raoul Peck was born.

RAOUL PECK: Instead of the bustling ports of the East Indies, Columbus came upon a tropical paradise populated by the Taíno people, what is now Haiti. Then, from the Iberian Peninsula came merchants, mercenaries, criminals and peasants. They seized the land and property of Indigenous peoples and declared the territories to be extensions of the Spanish and Portuguese states. These acts were confirmed by the monarchies and endorsed by the papal authority of the Roman Catholic Church. That’s more or less the official story. And through that official story, a new vision of the world was created: the doctrine of discovery.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s a clip from Exterminate All the Brutes, the 18th century, known as the Age of Revolutions. But we often associate this time with the American Revolution or the French Revolution, not the Haitian Revolution, which was led by Black slaves, the first country in the Western Hemisphere to be born of a slave uprising — you say, Raoul Peck, the only revolution that materialized the idea of enlightenment, freedom, fraternity and equality for all. You know, Haiti becomes a republic, and the U.S. Congress would not recognize it for decades, fearful that the fact that Haiti was born of a slave uprising would inspire the enslaved people of the United States to rise up, as well. Can you talk about the erasure of the Haitian Revolution, your own country, Haiti, its significance for you, and how the U.S. dealt with Haiti all of these years?

RAOUL PECK: Well, you know, the best words for this is what Michel-Rolph Trouillot have written about silencing the past. It was key for the U.S. and all the other European powers to silence the Haitian Revolution, because it was, in their eyes, worse than Cuba in the ’50s. We were under a strict embargo, because all of them had economy that still relied on slavery. And Haiti was the worst example they could have. And Haiti was also beating them in terms of their own ideology of enlightenment, because Haiti, the first constitution of Haiti, basically stated that any man or woman or person who set foot on the island is a free person. And none of the other revolutions dared go so far, because they were totally involved in slavery and were profiting from it. So there was no way that the Haitian Revolution could be accepted.

So, when people say that America is the first democratic country in the Western Hemisphere, it’s not. It’s Haiti. And the story continue until today. You know, we have a history of being attacked, of being invaded, of many of our leaders come to power with the acceptance of the U.S. government. And it continue until today. Basically, the last two presidents we had came into power thanks to the support of the U.S. government. So, we have, unfortunately, a long story of abuse from the United States and also of resistance, because one thing that we can say is that the Haitian people were always — whether it take 30 years, five years or two years, they always make sure that they can get rid of those corrupt leaders.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: I want to ask about one of the critical issues, Raoul, that you raise in the last part of the film, a critical question. You talk about your own experience living in Berlin, where you lived for 15 years and were also a film student, where you made a film on a Nazi torture compound. You say when you were there that you thought a lot about how a country that’s produced some of humanity’s best philosophers, scientists and artists also operated one of the most devastating, scientifically run and engineered killing machines. Now, many people have reflected on this question and the seeming contradiction in this fact by concluding that the Holocaust was some kind of historical aberration. In other words, that it stands very much outside the history of the Enlightenment and the ideas of humanism and universalism on which it apparently stands. But your film seems to suggest — even as this is raised as a question, your film suggests that other conclusions could be drawn. Could you talk a little bit about that?

RAOUL PECK: Well, it’s nothing new. In fact, there are many scholars that have worked on that specific question for the last 50, 60 years. And, of course, there is resistance to say that the Holocaust was a very special moment in the life of Western civilization. But it’s not. It’s a continuity of a wheel of genocide, a wheel of eliminate people that are deemed inferior. The structure of genocide are always the same.

You know, the person who invented the word “genocide,” Raphael Lemkin, in 1943 — we went to the New York Public Library, and in that library, in his file, there is a list of something around 42 previous genocides before the Holocaust. And he include in it, of course, the genocide against the Native American people. So, trying to make any type of genocide special, I think, is a really not correct way of seeing the history of humankind. They all copied from each other.

They are all, of course, specific. You know, you can’t directly compare the genocide in Rwanda with the genocide in Cambodia and with the Holocaust. They have different ideological reason. They have different historical reason. They have different people involved. But as the structure, as the system of genocide, they all obey the same pattern of first pinning down a special category of person, of people, and then start saying that we are superior to them, and they are insect. And as soon as you come to the point where they are animals or they are savages or they are insect, you are allowed to kill them. And that’s the excuse that was always needed for every imperialist, for every conqueror, in order to eliminate whoever was in the land they wanted to conquer. So, it’s similar. It has been similar throughout the history of humankind. And it became more specific within the concept of the capitalistic society, because then it was also linked to profit. It was also linked to make bigger territories in order to exploit large communities. So, I have had that discussion many years ago, back ago, including in Germany.

But today, I think we should move past that, what I would call the confrontation between who got the biggest pain. Do we put slavery confronted to the Holocaust or the Rwandis’ pain? You know, it’s not about that. We are all from the same human family. It’s not about who has suffered more. I think we have to acknowledge every piece of history that happened on this planet, and we have to give responses to them. And we have to explain why they happened, because it’s the only way that eventually we can prevent them to happen again and again.

AMY GOODMAN: And we want to talk more about that after this last clip from the series Exterminate All the Brutes.

RAOUL PECK: Trading human beings, what sick mind thought of this first? Brought by force and pushed to death — slavery, or the trade, as they they referred to it euphemistically, a state-sponsored genocide. What does this say about the civilized world?

AMY GOODMAN: So, if you could talk more about what this does say, and going back to the beginning, talking about genocide, the term coined by Raphael Lemkin, colonization, as well as civilization, and how you find hope today in the discussions, if this is all acknowledged, though you’re saying just acknowledging this is not enough?

RAOUL PECK: Yes, of course. But acknowledging it is a big step. And that’s what I wanted to say before, is that even for me as a filmmaker, telling that story, it took a lot of thinking in order to tell a story where for the first time you tell the story of the genocide of Native Americans, and then you tell the story of slavery, and then you tell also one of the major extermination story, which is the Holocaust. And for the first time, I think, at least on film, you can see the connections between them.

And for me, it’s a huge step. You know, it’s taking all those atrocity in a different context. And for me, it can only be the beginning of a wider conversation, instead of each part keeping their own malheur, keeping their own death, their own pain, and sometimes being used against each other, you know? And that’s a divide that has been used for many, many years. And for me, the film is also a step to break that separate narrative. There is not many different stories. There is one historical knowledge. And we need to access it.

And to your question, that’s the leitmotif in the series, you know? We already know enough. The problem is, what do we do with that knowledge? Because everything I say in the film, everything that Sven Lindqvist tells the story about, or Michel-Rolph Trouillot, or Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, those are fact. Those are highly competent scholars who spent their life documenting the horror. And my use of their work, with them, was exactly that, to force the conversation to a more sovereign type of discussion and to push aside the blurring of history, push aside the ignorance that still reign in the discussion.

And, you know, I am not going to name them again, the two politicians I named, but I think a population are more and more interested in learning where they come from. You know, there is a reason why everybody now wants to have their DNA analyzed, because there is some sort of feeling of connection, you know? And it’s our job, as filmmakers, and you, as journalists, as well, to lay that in plain sight. And then we can say, “OK, what do we do with this?” You know?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That’s exactly — we just have a minute. What do we do with this? Your film begins and ends with the same line that Sven Lindqvist says again and again: “It’s not knowledge that we lack. What is missing is the courage to understand what we know and draw the conclusions.” How does your film and the work of these other authors enable that courage?

RAOUL PECK: You know, I was primarily educated by Jesuits. And one thing is, maybe from that, that I believed in the notion of knowledge. I believe in the notion of learning the truth. And the film, for me, is the first step. And my wish is that every school, every university is able to watch the film and have discussion around it, because you cannot go further if you don’t know your own history, whatever the side you are on. But you need to know. And it’s not about accusing you of anything. It’s about facing your reality, because you can’t understand what’s going on. You can’t understand why policemen are still killing Black kids and Black men and Black women in this country, if you don’t know where it comes from. You know?

And it’s unfortunate. You know, we are in a time where we have huge instruments for communication and huge instrument for learning. You can go on the internet and learn about everything. But we lack a very condensed matrix of those histories that we have been built by. And each one of us needs to do our homework; otherwise, I don’t see any nonviolent outcome out of this.

AMY GOODMAN: Raoul Peck, the acclaimed Haitian-born filmmaker, director of the new HBO four-part documentary series Exterminate All the Brutes. Visit democracynow.org to watch our 2018 interview with Raoul about his films The Young Marx and I Am Not Your Negro about James Baldwin.

When we come back, The Man Who Lived Underground. We go to Portugal to speak with Julia Wright about how she unearthed an unpublished novel about racist police violence written by her father, the legendary African American writer Richard Wright, who wrote Native Son and Black Boy. Stay with us.

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