“Where art is a weapon, it is only so when it is art”
–Albert Maltz, one of the Hollywood Ten
Last night, HBO launched “Exterminate All the Brutes”, a four-part docudrama by Raoul Peck that is both art and weapon. As a director of the great narrative film “The Young Karl Marx” and the equally great James Baldwin documentary “I Am Not Your Negro”, Peck includes staged performances by professional actors to highlight the cruelties visited on native peoples in the Americas and in Africa. In the first episode, we see a scripted reenactment of a massacre American soldiers carried out against Seminoles and their escaped slave allies in 1836 who dared resist ethnic cleansing.
We also see a savage attack on the Congolese people in 1892, during King Leopold’s reign. In this reenactment, a Catholic mission founded by the Swedish priest Edward Sjoblom witnesses a white rubber plantation owner storming into the modest church, gun in hand, and forcing a Black parishioner from his pew. As everyone gathers outside the church, the colonist fires a bullet into the man’s head and then forces a young parishioner to cut off his hand to be proof to the authorities that law and order was being upheld, just as white settlers often took Indian scalps in the USA.
The source of these narrative set pieces is two books that are very close to my heart. The Seminole massacre is from Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s “’An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States”, a book I reviewed for CounterPunch in 2017.
The murder in front of the Catholic mission is described in Sven Lindqvist’s “Exterminate All the Brutes”, which are also the final words of Kurtz, the colonist and main character of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”. Lindqvist, a Swede who died at the age of 87 on May 14, 2019, wrote only three books, two of which I read and that left an indelible impression. I read “Exterminate All the Brutes” when it came out in 1992 but never reviewed it, mostly as a result of not yet having becoming addicted to writing articles on the net. However, when his “History of Bombing” came out in 2001, I made sure to let people know about it. The book persuaded me that aerial bombardment is ipso facto a war crime. When a top Italian officer proposed it as a useful strategic weapon in the early 1920s, he was relieved of his post and court-martialed.
Lindqvist had the same impact on Raoul Peck. There was a personal and political connection. Born in Haiti, Peck was the son of a Haitian agronomist. The Pecks fled the Duvalier dictatorship and relocated to Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). His father, who worked for the United Nations, had taken a job there as professor of agriculture. He had joined other Haitian professionals who were hired by the government to replace departing Belgians.
Much of Raoul Peck’s narration consists of words that occurred in Lindqvist’s “Exterminate All the Brutes”, such as:
The Latin extermino means “drive over the border,” terminus, “exile, banish exclude.” Hence the English exterminate which means “drive over the border to death, banish from life.”
In both English and Swedish, the object of the action is seldom a single individual, but usually whole groups, such as quitchgrass [a weed], rats, or people. Brutes, of course, reduces the object to its mere animal status.
Africans have been called beasts ever since the very first contacts, when Europeans described them as “rude and beastlie, brute beasts,” and “more brutish than the beasts they hunt.”
As might be expected from a filmmaker, Peck laces his documentary with vintage footage from Hollywood films. However, he does not offer up the obvious with cartoons from the 1930s depicting cannibals dancing around an oversized kettle containing Betty Boop. Instead, in a brilliant stroke, he includes a song and dance number from “On the Town” with the cast impersonating “Prehistoric Man” inside a museum.
It makes Dr. Seuss’s cancelled books look benign by comparison. The film was based on a 1944 musical that Jerome Robbins fleshed out from “Fancy Free”, a ballet about sailors on leave. At the time, Robbins was a member of the Communist Party and should have thought twice about mocking indigenous peoples. It is just a sign of white supremacy’s power that he did not.
It is worth spending some time reflecting on the willingness of HBO to give Raoul Peck carte blanche. I have seen numerous hard-hitting HBO anti-corporate documentaries but they are usually in line with Alex Gibney’s new documentary on the Oxycontin epidemic that premieres on the channel this month rather than anything like “Exterminate All the Brutes” that goes straight for the capitalist jugular vein. In some ways, it parallels the NY Times’s Project 1619 that some on the left considered disrespectful of America’s wonderous democratic traditions. The project leader Nikole Hannah-Jones, an African-American, would have none of this malarkey and neither would Raoul Peck, who was all too familiar with the US Marines occupying his country from 1915 to 1934.
Leftist critics of Project 1619 saw it as corporatist trick to divide the left based on “identity politics”, in some ways a class-essentialist outlook that has been around since the days of Eugene V. Debs who once wrote, “We have nothing special to offer the Negro, and we cannot make separate appeals to all the races.”
Will we hear the same complaint in the pages of the World Socialist Web Site? In a worthwhile NY Times article on the gestation of “Exterminate All the Brutes”, Robert Ito reports:
Peck began thinking about “Exterminate” in 2017 after Richard Plepler, then the chairman of HBO, “cursed” him “for 10 minutes” for not bringing “I Am Not Your Negro” to his network, then offered him carte blanche for his next project.
As co-president of HBO, Richard Plepler gave the green light for “Game of Thrones”, “True Blood”, and “Boardwalk Empire”, three huge hits. Isn’t it possible that he viewed (he left HBO last year) Peck’s documentary as having the same possibilities? Is this a case of Lenin’s words being confirmed that “the capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them?” In reality, Lenin’s quote was apocryphal but there was another observation made by Karl Marx in The Communist Manifesto that might help us understand why HBO funded a documentary that implicitly undermines its very existence:
Finally, in times when the class struggle nears the decisive hour, the progress of dissolution going on within the ruling class, in fact within the whole range of old society, assumes such a violent, glaring character, that a small section of the ruling class cuts itself adrift, and joins the revolutionary class, the class that holds the future in its hands. Just as, therefore, at an earlier period, a section of the nobility went over to the bourgeoisie, so now a portion of the bourgeoisie goes over to the proletariat, and in particular, a portion of the bourgeois ideologists, who have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole.
For those who are not HBO subscribers, I recommend taking out a subscription to HBO Max that will allow you to watch “Exterminate All the Brutes” on demand. You can always unsubscribe afterwards even if that robs you of the opportunity to watch “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and other jewels.