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11.03.2022

Silences, History, and The Fire Next Time: A Reading of Raoul Peck’s “Exterminate All The Brutes”

By Manar Ellethy

Optimized-1manar-1.png© Velvet Film/David Koskas/Courtesy HBO

“The fact that US slavery has both officially ended and yet continues in many complex forms of institutionalized racism, makes its representation particularly burdensome. […] As writer James Baldwin says, ‘there is scarcely any hope for the American dream because people who are denied participation in it, by their very presence will wreck it.’ The facts are staring us in the face.” — Raoul Peck [1]

It would not be an exaggeration to argue that Raoul Peck is one of the most prolific storytellers of our time. Through his ability to produce compelling socio-political commentaries in his works paired with striking visual imagery, dialogue, and experimentation, his contribution to black documentary filmmaking has been self-evident. Lost in the thousands of columns and reviews about his works are the meanings created in Peck’s storytelling that go beyond the conventional summarization of his films as ‘important’, ‘timely’, or ‘eye-opening’. It is certainly true that his works convey these meanings, yet one must see a deeper strength that lies in the way his films interweave complex political and cultural themes, avenues for discussion, self-exploration, and vicarious emotions, begging for more than to be simply deemed ‘relevant’.  In his new HBO documentary series Exterminate All the Brutes (2021), Peck reflects on the history of colonization, exploitation, and their partner in crime, white supremacy, along with their contemporary “ghosts” on American, European, and African grounds [1]. As Samuel L. Jackson utters the words of James Baldwin in Peck’s earlier film, I Am Not Your Negro (2016), Exterminate All the Brutes does not present “a pretty story” [2].

A creative experimentation with the medium of filmmaking and primarily, montage, Exterminate All the Brutes juxtaposes conventional documentary filmmaking techniques with archival footage of classical Hollywood films, narration, animation, Peck’s personal family videos, and dramatic reenactment. The result is an intriguing collage of an at first seemingly nonlinear and disrupted timeline of events across the three continents, that in the course of the four episodes compounds a coherent storyline. Three themes stand out as the core of the story: Silences, History, and Baldwin.

“Any historical narrative is a particular bundle of silences.” Peck emphasizes these lines, written by Michel-Rolph Trouillot in his book Silencing the Past in the second episode of the series titled “Who the F*** is Columbus”. In addition to Trouillot’s book, Peck tells the story through the lens of two other prominent texts: An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Exterminate All the Brutes by Sven Lindqvist. The concept of silences forms a common thread running through the texts and docu-series. But what is meant by silences in this context? What opportunities do historical silences reveal for filmmaking and other forms of storytelling? The opportunity presents itself as a ‘deconstruction’. For Peck, it is the storytellers’ “job as filmmakers, writers, historians, image-makers, to deconstruct these silences” [3].

The historical narrative Peck examines in his four-part series revolves around a “fabricated narrative” brought into existence with the help of power-relations, inequality, and subjugation. It is this fabricated narrative that instilled the historical inferiority of ‘black’ and ‘non-white’ as a racial category and therefore the subsequent legitimation of its enslavement or colonization while silencing alternative narratives. What Exterminate All the Brutes does is search for the nature of these silences and their painful truths. It goes as far as to switch the roles between the historical enslaver and enslaved, colonizer and colonized, by reenacting a scene in the second episode in which white people are captured and enslaved by black captors in the jungle while in another scene Columbus and the settlers are killed by indigenous peoples as soon as they reach the shores of Haiti in 1492. The bizarreness and shock created by these scenes evoke a sense of realization about the thin line between fabrication and truth that has allowed the unequal silencing of the historical facts laid bare in the series. The irony in these dramatically reenacted scenes allows Peck to illustrate to the audience how “the exercise of power” determines these historical facts as well as how they were recorded and framed [4]. Given the longstanding use of filmmaking and more generally visual culture in authenticating these exercises of power on the bigger screens, Peck seizes the opportunity to use filmmaking to dismantle these ensconced historical narratives. As a nod to the power of storytelling, the role switching scenes imply how the cultural medium of filmmaking itself can and has been used historically in this framing of narratives; for a split second the viewers find themselves in this creatively framed ‘alternative’ storyline.

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© Velvet Film/David Koskas/Courtesy HBO

“There is no such thing as alternative facts”, Peck argues in the first episode of the series [5]. Exterminate All the Brutes is determined to remind us of the problematic nature of alternative facts both in the past and the present. Along with the various mentions of ‘Trumpian vocabulary’ such as “sh*hole countries”, “make America great again”, and referring to immigrants as “animals”, the series purposely blends older and newer footage in a way that alludes to a similar technique done by Peck in I Am Not Your Negro in order to illustrate the continuation of our history in our present. At the beginning of the first episode, the camera frame focuses on the film set where actors are getting prepared to shoot a reenactment scene. Historical props and clothes blend into a set full of modern filming equipment; we are reminded that we are watching a film and that the history it examines is closer to our present than we might think. From the myth of post-racial societies to the omission of many aspects of the history of colonization and exploitation in school curricula, the series testifies against what scholar Henry Giroux has labeled “historical amnesia” or “a racialized politics of organized forgetting”. This form of amnesia targets “historical consciousness” to create an alternative imagined experience of history that aims to perpetuate the silencing of historical facts [6]. Consciousness is substituted with ignorance and denial, facts with imagination, and history is confined to the past as static knowledge found in history books and museum halls. 

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© Velvet Film/David Koskas/Courtesy HBO

“History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.” — James Baldwin [7]

In true Baldwinian fashion, Exterminate All the Brutes is a chronicle of the silences lost in this historical amnesia. It is also a memoir that gives the historical silences a personal angle by placing the filmmaker at the heart of the narrative. We follow Peck’s development as a filmmaker creating this piece of visual culture. He explores a historical narrative in which he and everyone who looks like him were supposed to be, as he argues, “assigned the role of a footnote or at best, like in most Hollywood movies, a supporting role with a guaranteed death and careless disposal by some wild beast sometimes before the third act” [8]. As such, the series exemplifies the process of self-reflexivity as well as the idea of ‘deconstructing’ silences from within an apparatus that has itself historically contributed to the persistence of these silences. In the collage of footage blended in the series are clips of numerous Hollywood films that have problematic representations of the history of the ‘native’. Peck grew up watching these films as a kid: Gene Kelly’s On the Town (1949), John Wayne’s The Alamo (1960), Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and more recently Peter Jackson’s King Kong (2005). Peck uses the footage to show how the medium of filmmaking has been used to perpetuate imagined historical narratives. By using that very medium in the series, he deconstructs these narratives that he and millions of viewers grew up watching on the big screens. As such, this ‘deconstruction from within’ takes place on HBO, the oldest streaming platform and Hollywood giant that reaches millions of viewers worldwide.   

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© Velvet Film/David Koskas/Courtesy HBO

Although only explicitly mentioned a few times in the series, Baldwin’s thoughts and writings echo throughout the four episodes. From the omnipresence of history in the present through collective and personal experiences to the importance of using existing mediums of culture to deconstruct them from within, the spirit of Baldwin’s writings guides the series. Not only does the series trace the roots of what Baldwin called the “invention of the Negro” by white supremacy, but it attests to the power of our past in our future. It deals with a critical question Baldwin proposes in The Fire Next Time, that of how one must avoid to “take refuge in any delusion” [9]. Over the course of the four episodes, Peck pleads for breaking away from the delusions that shape many aspects of history when it comes to race. “The facts are staring us in the face”, they can be found in our politics, our institutions, social and personal experiences as they all assert the vividness of our history in our present and future. Our ability to come to terms with the facts of our history will determine our course in the future for “the past has a future we never expect” [10].

Manar Ellethy is PhD candidate at the Roosevelt Institute for American Studies and Leiden University. Her research focuses on African American documentary film practices in the late 1960s as a form of cultural resistance aiming to subvert a socio-political public discourse of racial democracy in an era of significant political transformations in race relations and black citizenship.

[1] Peck, Raoul, dir. Exterminate All the Brutes. Episode 4, “The Bright Colors of Facism”, directed by Raoul Peck, aired April 7, 2021, on HBO Signature. https://www.hbo.com/exterminate-all-the-brutes/episodes/4-part-4
[2] ———, dir. I Am Not Your Negro. Toronto: Magnolia Pictures, 2016.
[3] ———. “The Director’s Statement.” Video, 03:48. 2021. https://www.hbo.com/video/exterminate-all-the-brutes/videos/directors-statement
[4] ———. Exterminate All the Brutes, Episode 2, “Who the F*** is Columbus”, directed by Raoul Peck, aired April 7, 2021, on HBO Signature, https://www.hbo.com/exterminate-all-the-brutes/episodes.
[5] ———. Exterminate All the Brutes, Episode 1, “The Disturbing Confidence of Ignorance.” directed by Raoul Peck, aired April 7, 2021, on HBO Signature, https://www.hbo.com/exterminate-all-the-brutes/episodes/1-part-1
[6] Giroux, Henry. “Trump Aligns Ignorance with Bigotry as he Attempts to Rewrite History.” CBC News, September 16, 2020.
https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/hamilton/university-giroux-mcmaster-1.5725896
———. The Violence of Organized Forgetting: Thinking Beyond America’s Disimagination Machine. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2014. 
[7] Baldwin, James. “Black English: A Dishonest Argument.” In The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings, edited by Randall Kenan, 125-130. New York: Pantheon Books.
[8] Peck, Raoul, dir. Exterminate All the Brutes. Episode 3, “Killing at a Distance or…How I Thoroughly Enjoyed the Outing,”, directed by Raoul Peck, aired April 7, 2021, on HBO Signature. https://www.hbo.com/exterminate-all-the-brutes/episodes/3-part-3
[9] Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time. New York: Penguin Random House, 2017.
[10] Peck, Raoul, dir. Exterminate All the Brutes. Trailer, directed by Raoul Peck, aired April 7, 2021, on HBO Signature. https://www.hbo.com/exterminate-all-the-brutes

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