Near the end of “Exterminate All the Brutes,” director Raoul Peck’s searing four-part historical hybrid about the sordid history of colonialism, he says, “The very existence of this film is a miracle.” He’s right, less because of its existence, but rather seeing such a sweeping indictment of US history, and the way it has traditionally been taught, in a broad commercial venue like HBO.
Weaving his own biography and personal experiences into the tale, the Haitian filmmaker has produced a hard-to-describe project, mixing detailed dramatic sequences, animation and documentary elements, with actor Josh Hartnett, somewhat distractingly, representing the face of oppression and genocide through various stages of history.
The central theme, however, focuses on a long road of racism built on the tentpoles of “Civilization. Colonization. Extermination.” Peck draws on author Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” for the title, before proceeding to dissect the way history is written and spun by the survivors.
As Peck notes, the “discoverers” of America and others through the centuries characterized themselves as such, using that as cover to seize the lands of Indigenous peoples, leaving a trail of broken treaties and abuse.
“Only through killing, and displacement, does it become uninhabited,” Peck, who provides the gravelly-voiced narration throughout, observes, drawing a line from the past through the white-supremacist movements of today. Former President Trump is shown referring to undocumented immigrants as “animals” (remarks he later sought to clarify) — a continuation, Peck argues, of the mentality that certain people are somehow less than human.
Peck has sought to force viewers not merely to confront history, but to connect it directly to the present. He also wants to inspire a reconsideration of the way these events have been discussed and portrayed, perhaps most effectively through the incorporation of old movie clips filled with images of casual racism and stereotypes.
There’s an unavoidable sense that something as overtly provocative as “Exterminate All the Brutes” will wind up strictly preaching to the choir. “History is a fruit of power,” Peck says early on, proceeding to deconstruct some carefully manicured storylines that children were told as a means of tearing down statues to them, figuratively if not literally.
Known for the James Baldwin-inspired documentary “I Am Not Your Negro” and “Sometimes in April,” an HBO drama about the Rwandan genocide, Peck blends those two forms, breaking his sections down with subtitles like “The Disturbing Confidence of Ignorance.” The narrative derives inspiration from several scholarly works, including Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s “An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States.”
In the press materials, HBO notes that Peck “freely weaves together scripted and unscripted content,” which can make “Exterminate All the Brutes” feel messy, and in places even disorienting. That might explain the network’s decision to consolidate the four hours over successive nights.
The net effect, however, succeeds at the very least in spurring contemplation not only regarding what we know about history, but how — and who — conveyed that to us. While Peck’s unorthodox approach might not win many converts, the project’s existence is, if not quite a miracle, its own kind of victory.
“Exterminate All the Brutes” will air April 7-8 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO, which, like, CNN, is a unit of WarnerMedia.