If you found Anglican Video’s award-winning film Doctrine of Discovery: Stolen Lands, Strong Hearts to be as powerful and disturbing as I did, you’ll want to see Exterminate All the Brutes, a four-part documentary on HBO. Exterminate offers an unflinching look at the impact of white supremacy or, more specifically, whites’ presumption to supremacy from the so-called Age of Discovery through to the present day. In light of the recent discovery of the remains of 215 children buried at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, this documentary has a particular relevance.
Created, directed, and narrated by filmmaker Raoul Peck, the documentary draws its title from Joseph Conrad’s classic Heart of Darkness. “Brutes” was Conrad’s slang for non-whites. The documentary argues that extermination was employed as a way to eliminate the “brutes” from the conquests of European explorers and North American settlers. Over the four parts, Peck traces the history of human extermination from the Holocaust to Hiroshima, from Vietnam to Rwanda, with a particular focus on the genocide of indigenous people and the enslavement of Africans in the “New World.”
These hour-long films document the story of how extermination occurred repeatedly on a mass scale. Peck spares no chilling details. White supremacy—based on now-discredited science—was the rationale. The central argument of this series is that it was the economic interests of white “civilized” people that led them to engage in acts of mass murder. When those indigenous to the lands did not comply with those who sought to conquer, dominate, and exploit, they were exterminated. This is the legacy of colonialism.
Peck’s documentary combines a variety of elements, including his own story as a Haitian-born black man who grew up in the Congo, was educated in the US and France, and studied at film school in Germany. But it is not simply autobiography: he expands his personal narrative to include the history of North American colonization, the enslavement of men and women from the African continent, and the horrors of mass killings in wars. He offers numerous examples from literature, cinema, and popular culture to illustrate the horrific history of white supremacy and the extermination of non-white human beings.
Peck identifies as collaborators three authors whose books were highly influential: Sven Lindqvist (Exterminate All the Brutes—examining Europe’s genocidal colonization of Africa), Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States—the first history of the US told from an indigenous perspective), and Michel-Rolph Trouillot (Silencing the Past—an analysis of power and silence in history, focusing on Haitian history). A skilled filmmaker, nominated for an Academy Award for his 2016 documentary I Am Not Your Negro, Peck uses the full palette of cinematic vocabulary—including animated maps and charts—to review history, and includes dramatic reenactments of events with actor Josh Hartnett playing a murderous white Everyman.
The cumulative effect of these four hour-long films was deeply unsettling for me. They prompted reflection on my privileged life as a white man and made me ponder uncomfortable questions about my assumptions of the history of church, country, and commonwealth. As Peck states repeatedly throughout the series, “It’s not knowledge we lack. What is missing is the courage to understand what we know and to draw conclusions.” By presenting what we know already, Exterminate All the Brutes invites its viewers to draw conclusions. What are white people to think about current arrangements of power and politics once we acknowledge our part in a violent and oppressive history? Is it possible to gather the will to tell the truth about the facts of mass extermination and begin to move towards acknowledgement and restitution?
Just as Doctrine of Discovery shone a light on the underlying assumptions of colonization, Exterminate All the Brutes depicts the horrors brought about through the assumption of white supremacy. There is a theological word for the rationalization of extermination: sin. Too often the church’s teaching about sin focuses on individual shortcomings but is blind to the deeper and more pernicious realities of social sin. It is nothing less than the sin of assumed superiority that buttressed rationales providing moral exceptions to justify violence and murder. Christian tradition teaches that the response to sin is repentance.
Repentance, in the teaching of Jesus, is about more than just feeling sorry—it’s about turning away, thinking differently, and choosing a new path. In short, it’s about changing your mind. Does our beloved church have the courage to look at the horrors of history with repentance? For example, in my view there can be no genuine reconciliation with indigenous people in Canada until there is a forthright acknowledgment of the complicity of church and country in white supremacy—including the deaths of indigenous students in residential schools. Only then can conclusions begin to be drawn about how to forge a future together on this land.
Exterminate All the Brutes is not for the weak-hearted—each episode is preceded by a notice that it is not recommended for anyone under 18 years old, and that it contains violent images. While some may disagree with some aspects of Peck’s penetrating analysis, there can be no doubt that he presents a compelling narrative of history as he invites viewers to draw conclusions about the legacy of racially motivated violence.