Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro (2016) was an exhilarating and popular documentary in large part because it took on the black experience in America through James Baldwin’s bracing rhetoric. Baldwin wrote and spoke with such raging beauty, it was somehow heartening to face up to our national history of intractable racism through his brilliance in excoriating it. That’s the power of art.
There’s no inspiring figure to lead us through Peck’s follow-up documentary, Exterminate All the Brutes. It’s a deliberately ugly and jarring presentation of sickening historical events charting the six-hundred-year development of the concept and system of white supremacy associated with colonialism, slavery, and genocide. And given the subject matter, maybe that’s the right approach — it’s unsparing, and provides no emotional shelter, no way of avoiding the worst feelings of despair. Peck acknowledges the difficulty of watching the series early on, in his moving, husky-voiced narration: “I know this is a painful history…”
He also argues, in interviews about making the film, that he knew in planning such a complex, wide-ranging follow-up to his hugely successful, award-winning I Am Not Your Negro, that he would have to experiment with form. He’d long ago rejected the tidiest formal contrivances for films:
I have destroyed the typical Hollywood three-act structure because it’s a way to contrive you. It contrives the words, it contrives the thinking because you need certain steps — exposition, contradiction, and then resolution at the end…. But what I do is I explode the box from the get-go, always because it frees my mind.
It’s good to see Peck’s conscious rejection of the brainwashing effects of popular film. It pushes him not only toward challenging content, but to crucial experimentation in form, which was a common reaction in radical cinema once, but pretty rare today.
Determined to avoid any one easily identified type of filmmaking, Peck throws a multitude of approaches and styles at the problem of presenting this long, vile, global history of ours. There’s the traditional documentary approach, featuring voice-over narration (his own) with historical film footage and photographs. It includes scholarly material from experts whom Peck cites as his own particular friends and teachers, mainly historian Sven Lindqvist, author of Exterminate All the Brutes; Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, author of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States; and Michel-Rolph Trouillot, author of Silencing the Past. Peck is determined to “keep it personal” — even the aspects of the traditional documentary that are generally kept impersonal, like appeals to scholarship — by underscoring his deep friendships with the scholars.
He also draws upon the “personal essay” documentary approach, with autobiographical material such as Peck family home movies in Haiti and the Democratic Republic of Congo as Peck describes the impact of racism and colonialism on his own life. There’s animation for a few of the ghastliest sequences involving the genocide of Native American tribes. There are live-action fictionalized reenactments, all featuring Josh Hartnett (a longtime friend of Peck’s) as a kind of eternal white racist colonizer through the ages.
These approaches are uneven in their effectiveness — particularly the reenactments. But the number of formal approaches is remarkable, as it adds additional clashing effects to the already jolting combination of factual narratives, such as the Nazi Holocaust, the deliberate extermination of Native American peoples, the conscious suppression of the account of the Haitian Revolution, the multinational horrors of slavery, and the MAGA lunacies of Donald Trump’s presidency, with a time frame rapidly shuttling back and forth across continents and centuries.
How do you reteach history and indicate its impact on present-day events to people who’ve always been taught comforting, ideologically-driven lies in school, in church, in media, in the celebrations of national holidays, in their community events, and in street names, and in statuary? How do you illustrate such an “unthinkable” horror show, and make it “thinkable”?
And once you’ve put it together, as Peck has, and added further contrapuntal effects in the form of a wide range of popular songs, anachronistically related to the images they’re paired with — who’ll watch it? Will it be the usual audience for such “hard-hitting documentaries” — comfortably situated, relatively well-educated, politically left-leaning viewers? Those who already know the god-awful global history of imperialism, colonialism, slavery, and genocide, in broad strokes, at least, and don’t mind adding to their knowledge of the details?
Nobody who needs to know the history wants to learn the history. And many who already know the history, in part because they’re living out its worst effects, can’t endure dwelling on it. Just my own extended family covers a wide range of levels of historical knowledge, education, and political stances in America, and I bet none of them will watch this film. Not the lower-class white members, a number of them ex-military, who’ve moved radically to the Right in the past twenty years. They’d certainly reject this series outright as radical left-wing propaganda. Not the middle-class white liberals who vote the straight Democratic ticket and watch MSNBC faithfully. Not even the few tentative, socialist-leaning members who’d flinch at the very title Exterminate All the Brutes, and plead sufficient awareness of history as a slaughterhouse. And certainly not my in-laws, who are left-leaning lower-to-middle-class people of color, who’ve found life in America tough enough without adding further mental torture to their televised entertainment.
Within the film, Peck addresses the complexity of his own project, including its rhetorical implications for an intended audience, in a risky but interesting way. After providing a four-hour alternative history — alternative to the traditional mainstream education provided in America, at least — Peck concludes that it’s not really education that’s needed:
The educated general public has always largely known what atrocities have been committed and are being committed in the name of progress, civilization, socialism, democracy, and the market.
Mike Hale of the New York Times found this conclusion maddening:
He closes with a reproving phrase that echoes through the film: “It’s not knowledge we lack.” But he declines to say what it is we lack — compassion? Willpower? If there is something we possess that could have made history different, either he doesn’t know or he’s not telling.
But Peck’s conclusion is the most interesting aspect of the film. The implication seems clear: the majority knows the history, but doesn’t care, at least not enough. Peck’s jarring effects, in keeping with the groundwork laid by liberation cinema, seem designed to make us feel so sick of the history we’re part of and the system we’re in, we’ll actually lash out and try to destroy it.
One docuseries isn’t nearly enough, obviously. It’s going to take a lot of furious filmmaking, and organizing, and speechmaking, and protesting, and marching, and fighting, to get a revolt going. Peck’s doing his part.