But Peck isn’t just concerned with the past. Like his vibrant James Baldwin documentary “I Am Not Your Negro,” Peck is interested in how our past has come to inform our present. In “Exterminate All the Brutes” he superimposes images of the past on our present to find uncomfortable truths and stories buried under hundreds of years of colonialism. In shots of magnificent European architectural wonders made possible by brutalizing black and brown subjects in remote settlements, Peck overlays photos of these people to obscure obscene displays of wealth made possible by their exploitation. It traces decades and centuries of struggles between peoples to the ancient shipping routes, whose power determined the winner. It’s as if Peck took the New York Times“The 1619 Project,” which centers black history in the United States and the ramifications of slavery, and extended it to a global scale – with a strong emphasis on Western civilization like Europe and its colonies – and a lens that also includes the plight of indigenous peoples on different continents.
However, using these ideas and tools to reexamine our history is not a recent invention. In the series’ opening credits and throughout, Peck acknowledges the elders who taught him to question the official history and look beyond the whitewashed version of what we think we know. It draws particular attention to the works of Sven Lindqvist, Michel-Rolph Trouillot and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. Some of those mentioned in the series he befriended, like Lindqvist, whose book gives the series its name and general premise. But personal anecdotes don’t stop at Peck’s version of a classroom playlist. It becomes deeply personal about his own experiences and career. He took advantage of traveling the world and affording himself a European education, and the experience allowed him to see first hand the results of past atrocities: by going to film school in Berlin and reflecting on the how Germany systematized the murder of Jews in the Holocaust. Decades ago, he lost friends in his home country of Haiti to CIA-backed military personnel, traveled to Africa as a child and took photos with statues honoring white conquerors, profiling world leaders and watching them being betrayed or committing a betrayal for power. These ruminations appear in tune with world events, such as when Peck goes from scathing criticism of modern world leaders to the inspiration behind his 2013 film “Murder in Pacot” and to reflecting on what drives oppressed people to take desperate measures.
Visually, “Exterminate All the Brutes” is just as powerful as Peck’s reading of semi-hidden chapters of the story. With his deep, husky voice, Peck guides audiences through one historical event after another, breaking down how the dehumanization of a perceived another led to their attempted destruction. It uses all the tools in the documentary manual to blast the story off the page, including animated sequences and historical recreations, which often have a metatextual component that compares the past to the present. One of those devices is the use by the series of Josh Hartnett, who appears in each episode as a white Everyman whose role changes depending on the story Peck is telling. Hartnett goes from a US Army sergeant who exterminates members of a Seminole tribe in 19th century Florida in a scene to a colonizer in the Belgian Congo, using his power to practice cruelty. He is the ancestor of the Charlottesville protesters with tiki torches and the police whose professional lineage can be traced to slave hunters and who profit from the criminalization of others. Basically, he is someone who has benefited from some genetic differences and refuses to see his part in the larger scheme of imperialism, colonization and racial oppression.