After wrapping up his 2016 documentary “I Am Not Your Negro,” director Raoul Peck felt he had had his say on the subject of race relations in the United States. Or at least its subject, writer James Baldwin, had.
In the film, Baldwin called whiteness a “metaphor for power” and denounced this country’s racist heritage in the most blunt terms. What more could Peck say that Baldwin didn’t have?
“Baldwin is one of the most accurate researchers in American society,” Peck said in a video interview from his home in Paris. “If you didn’t get the message, it means there is no hope for you.”
The film won more than a dozen cinema awards and an Oscar nomination for best documentary film. In addition to accolades and rave reviews, “I Am Not Your Negro” has sparked renewed interest in Baldwin’s work which continues today. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, the writer’s work seems more relevant than ever. Even so, said Peck, “I was amazed that people could go on living their lives as if nothing had happened. As if those words didn’t exist.
This realization prompted Peck to try to uncover the roots of what Baldwin had written and spoken so eloquently and passionately: the history of racism, violence and hatred in the West. “What was the origin of all this?” Peck said he wondered. “Where did the whole white supremacist ideology start?”
This research is at the center of Peck’s latest project, “Exterminate All the Brutes,” an extremely ambitious and deeply essayistic endeavor that combines archival footage, Hollywood movie clips, scripted scenes and animated sequences. Premiering Wednesday on HBO Max, the four-part series traces the history of Western racism, colonialism and genocide, the Spanish Inquisition and Columbus’ “discovery” of already populated lands, through the stories of the the Atlantic slave trade, the Wounded Knee massacre and the Holocaust.
For Peck, who weaves his own story into the film using voiceovers, snapshots, and home movies, the project is extremely personal. In many ways, he’s the perfect person to tell a story about Western colonialism: after growing up in Haiti, a former colony that gained independence in 1804, he moved at age 8 with his family to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. , where his parents worked for the newly liberated government. He also lived and worked in New York, West Berlin and Paris, and directed films on the Haitian revolution (“Moloch Tropical”) and the assassinated Congolese politician Patrice Lumumba (“Lumumba: Death of a prophet”).
“I think my soul is sort of Haitian,” he said, “but I’ve been influenced by all the places I’ve been.
Peck started thinking about “Exterminate” in 2017 after Richard Plepler, then president of HBO, “cursed” him “for 10 minutes” for not bringing “I’m not your nigger” to his network, then gave him carte blanche for his next project.
“We had worked on several ideas for films, both documentaries and feature films,” said Rémi Grellety, producer of Peck for 13 years. “And Raoul said, ‘Let’s get Richard the hardest idea.'”
The film, they told Plepler in a two-page pitch, would be based on historian Sven Lindqvist’s 1992 book “Exterminate All the Brutes,” a mixture of history and travelogue that used the short story of Joseph Conrad “Heart of Darkness” like a jump. point to retrace the racist past of Europe in Africa. (“Kill all the bullies” are the last words we hear from Kurtz, the “demigod” of Conrad’s ivory trade.) It would be about that, but also a lot more, much of which is n hadn’t quite resolved yet.
“There were a lot of ideas in that speech,” Grellety recalls.
After extracting Lindqvist’s book, Peck determined that he needed a similar text on the history of the genocide in the United States. He stumbled across “A History of the Native Peoples of the United States,” Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s award-winning American Book Award review of this country’s centuries-old war against its native inhabitants, and he was “blown away.” . Peck and Dunbar-Ortiz spoke at length about his book and film, and how the two could come together.
Many of the film’s most powerful scenes derive from Dunbar-Ortiz’s text, including an animated sequence depicting Alexis de Tocqueville’s tale of Choctaws crossing the Mississippi in 1831, about what became known as the Trail of Tears. When their dogs realize they are being left behind, they “give a mournful howl,” leaping into the icy waters of the Mississippi in a futile attempt to follow.
“I’m almost crying now, just thinking about it,” Dunbar-Ortiz said. “And in the movie, showing it in animation, I think that will make a lot of people cry.”
To complete the story, Peck turned to the work of his friend, the Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot, who died in 2012. Peck was moved by a central idea from Trouillot’s book “Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History ”. : that “history is the fruit of power”, shaped and told (or not) by the victors.
“This is the history of Europe,” said Peck. “Europe must tell the story of the past 600 years.”
Throughout the series, Peck slaughters a succession of sacred cows, including explorer Henry Morton Stanley (“a murderer”); Winston Churchill, who, as a young war correspondent, described the slaughter of thousands of Muslim soldiers at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898 as “a splendid game”; and even the author of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”, L. Frank Baum, who advocated the extermination of Native Americans after the Wounded Knee massacre.
Among his most frequent targets is Donald Trump, whom the film compares – through a series of powerful juxtapositions – to bigots throughout history. “I’m an immigrant from a shitty country,” Peck says at one point, one of the show’s many references to Trump’s racist rhetoric.
In order to create a “new vehicle to make you feel what the real world is like,” Peck said, he filmed several scenes featuring Josh Hartnett as a 19th century U.S. Army officer (loosely based on Quartermaster General Thomas Sidney Jesup), a racist All-Man who reappears throughout history, hanging blacks and shooting Native Americans. Hartnett met Peck years ago on a failed film project, then later in Cannes, and the two had become friends.
“Last year he called me and told me he wanted a white American actor to play the tip of the genocidal sword in western history, and he had been thinking of me,” said Hartnett. “I thought, wow, that’s flattering.”
“I’ve known him for 20 years,” Peck said, “so I knew I could have this conversation with him.
In March of last year, Hartnett and the rest of the cast and crew traveled to the Dominican Republic to film the live-action scenes, with locations in the island nation representing Florida and the Belgian Congo. Then the pandemic struck, shutting down operations the night before production began. Peck considered his options and brought the entire shoot closer to home.
“We were in the south of France in the summer,” Hartnett said. “So it wasn’t a bad situation.”
Through meta-textual moments and manipulations, Peck creates his own counterweight to the dominant Western version of the story, forcing viewers to reflect on the accounts, both popular and academic, that they have been nurtured their entire lives. . In one scene, Hartnett’s character shoots an Indigenous woman (Caisa Ankarsparre), only for revealing that she is an actress on a movie set. In another, a 19th-century Anglican cleric gives a talk dividing humanity into “savage” (Africans), “semi-civilized” (Chinese) and “civilized” races – to a contemporary audience filled with people of color.
At the start of the series, Peck says, “Alternative facts don’t exist.” But he also seems to recognize the selective nature of any historical narrative and the power to control the image, probing deeper truths in certain scenes by asking viewers to imagine what the story might look like if things had turned out. differently. In one scene, white families are chained, whipped, and walk through the jungle. In another, the landing of Columbus was massacred on the beaches of present-day Haiti in 1492.
“I will use whatever means necessary to convey these points,” said Peck.
Longtime filmmaker and film buff, Peck has filled his series of film clips to illustrate the creative overhaul of Hollywood history (John Wayne in the 1960s “The Alamo”) and to complement his arguments. (In a scene played for laughs, Harrison Ford shoots a scimitar-wielding Arab in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”)
One of the series’ most disturbing clips – no small feat – is from an otherwise light-hearted Hollywood musical: “On the Town” (1949). In the scene, Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Ann Miller and others jostle each other in a seemingly undocumented natural history museum, singing in fake African gibberish, dressing like Native Americans and letting out “howls of war.” “And assaults like” natives of the South Pacific. Set to the tune “Prehistoric Man,” the dance number pairs a club caveman – “a happy monkey without an English drape” – with Native Americans, Africans and Pacific Islanders.
“When I looked at it, I said, ‘No, my God, that can’t be,” Peck said. “It’s like they know I was making this movie. He just kept on giving and giving.
Not surprisingly, securing the rights to some of the clips was a struggle. “We didn’t lie,” Grellety said. “We would contact people and say the title was ‘Exterminate All the Brutes’. So they knew it wasn’t a romantic comedy. In some cases, the filmmakers had to secure the clips by invoking fair use – as they did with “Prehistoric Man”.
Peck may not have seen himself reflected in the movies he grew up watching in Haiti, but he’s using those Hollywood clips to re-tell the story of the West. This imaginative recovery process was no accident.
“I was born into a world where I didn’t create everything before me,” he said. “But I can make sure that I use everything I can to show that the world as you think it is not the world as it is.
“And those Hollywood movies, those archive files, these are windows they didn’t know they had left open.”