Time and again Exterminate All the Brutes, Raoul Peck (I Am Not Your Negro)’s staggering new docu-series about the white-supremacist past of history-telling, returns back from its tellings and re-tellings of history’s endless wars, famines, and genocides, to spend some quality time ogling the notedly beautiful white actor Josh Hartnett. Playing a dead-eyed every-colonialist whose malignant presence spans centuries and the globe, some kind of cancer in 6’3” form, Hartnett’s character can be seen traversing South American bamboo forests and turn-of-the-last-century surgical theaters alike. And yet Peck’s camera keeps finding excuses, amid the many many many horrors, to watch Hartnett disrobe and bathe.
Once was a pleasure, twice was further appreciated, but around the third time (I’m a little slow when presented with Josh Hartnett taking his clothes off) it sunk in that something more, something truly and notably important, was going on here against these displays of flesh. Amid all the atrocities that Peck is methodically unearthing and documenting Exterminate All the Brutes feels emphatically punctuated by these pauses like breaks in a poem—his camera stops, breathes, and furiously interrogates the hell out of white skin. This is what the world’s burned for? This flat pink nonsense?
One of these sequences toward the end of the series feels most pointed. Inside a run-down shack (seemingly somewhere in Africa; these sequences are mostly contextless) Hartnett begins stripping for another bath, but this time directly in front of a Black woman. The woman has run the bath for him, and as he undresses and climbs in she sits opposite on a chair, and stares. Her expression is rigid. The air is pregnant with tension as he sinks in and his eyes meet hers, and the film is well aware of how we’ve been programmed to read these sorts of scenes before by popular culture (with films like Mandingo for instance), with the possibilities of lurid sexualized violence.
Peck will have none of that. The woman turns, the camera follows her eyes outside the window, and the true devastating nature of this scene reveals itself—this is not that white man’s fantasy. He stews in his milky horror as history, red and real, floods the map.
Peck’s series is so monumental, an entire rewritten history course condensed down to four encyclopedic hours, that the small moments of Art the filmmaker punctuates the strings of atrocities with really sing—I wouldn’t call them “breathers” because, as just described, they’re as horrifying as anything he’s showing us, maybe often more. But they reconfigure the shock and awe of this witnessing into another form, one art in its ambiguity is more capable of capturing—hard facts turn manifest, living things. Like how a piece of music can stir us in ways words in their bluntness never can, Peck keeps finding ways to transcend language.
Because you quickly realize, watching Peck’s work, how Language itself seems deeply inadequate—how the very language we use to describe the world has been shaped by these horrific forces, saturating every flesh and vocalization. So Peck digs, and churns, and batters his way through to new ways of illustratively speaking, of singing, finding a dozen vivid ways across these four hours to re-contextualize time and again. There are animated sequences, action-figure reenactments, discordant pop-music cues. He even injects his own personal immigrant story into the narrative. And not a whit of it feels strained. It all feels in service of making the past present, of making the invisible presence in our every room reveal itself. We are all standing on the back of this systemic beast; Raoul Peck demands we just look down and see.
Image sources (in order of posting): HBO Max, HBO,