Art for The Fruit of Power.
Fraser James in Exterminate All the Brutes. | Velvet Film/David Koskas/Courtesy HBO
James Wham,  April 21

The Fruit of Power

Raoul Peck unspools Western history in a new documentary on colonialism and genocide

Fraser James in Exterminate All the Brutes. | Velvet Film/David Koskas/Courtesy HBO
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History is the fruit of power.” This is Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s version of the well-known adage, “History is written by the victor,” taken from his book Silencing the Past. I prefer Trouillot’s version. It reminds me of “Strange Fruit,” that poem written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish Communist schoolteacher from the Bronx, later sung by Billie Holiday and Nina Simone, then later still sampled by Kanye West. “Southern trees bear a strange fruit” it begins, “Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze.” Here is one history of the United States, white power’s bitter harvest.

“Der Sieger wird immer der Richter und der Besiegte stets der Angeklagte sein,” said Hermann Göring at the Nuremberg trials. The victor will always be the judge, and the vanquished the accused. Yet another reason to prefer Trouillot: his formulation cannot be weaponized by perpetrators as a means of absolution. Whatever strange fruit grew out of the Nazi regime, it was their power that fertilized it. Trouillot and Meeropol remind us that the world is foremost a natural place, polluted and perverted only by the way in which we choose to nourish it: with blood on the leaves and blood at the root.

To say that history is written by the victor is to say that history is entirely constructed—another narrative, another myth, another falsehood. In Silencing the Past, Trouillot probes this problematic: “But how much can we reduce what happened to what is said to have happened? . . . If meaning is totally severed from a referent ‘out there,’ if there is no cognitive purpose, nothing to be proved or disproved, what then is the point of the story?” The inverse, of course, is equally troublesome—to rely only on evidence or testimony or referents is to rely on a material reality that, with time or nooses or napalm, can be destroyed. The Nazis knew this well, attempting to demolish the sites of their sins as they fled. In this way, the most successful genocide is the one we know nothing about, the one enacted against a people who are now culturally, aesthetically, and literally extinct. Trouillot often refers to this historical lack as a “silence,” though power, he argues, can be equally difficult to locate: “The ultimate mark of power may be its invisibility; the ultimate challenge, the exposition of its roots.”

Raoul Peck quotes Trouillot extensively in his new film, Exterminate All the Brutes. Silencing the Past is one of three books that form the collaborative foundation of Peck’s four-hour, four-part docuseries, released by HBO—the others being Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous People’s History of the United States and the Sven Lindqvist book from which the film takes its name. He refers to all three authors as friends, and even mourns Lindqvist’s passing midway through the film. Through these texts, Peck takes up Trouillot’s challenge of exposing silences embedded in the many historical threads that make up our world. Foremost, this means revisiting the history of “civilization, colonization, and extermination” that has defined human behavior for the past several hundred years—taking us from Europe’s mid-millennium naval domination to our current military industrial complex, from the Spanish Inquisition to the Holocaust.

The most successful genocide is the one we know nothing about, the one enacted against a people who are now culturally, aesthetically, and literally extinct.

Peck occupies a unique place in contemporary filmmaking, one that makes him particularly well-suited to a project as ambitious as this—essentially aiming to unspool Western history through fiction, documentary, home movies, animation, personal testimony, and myriad other tools. His most recent film, The Young Karl Marx, took a tender look at the relationship between Marx and Engels. Prior to that, he made I Am Not Your Negro, a documentary drawing from the life and work of James Baldwin (once a student of Meeropol’s at DeWitt Clinton High School). Earlier works concern despots and revolutionaries—1993’s The Man by the Shore tells the story of a family living under the Duvalier regime in Haiti, which Peck’s family fled when he was just a boy. He traveled to Africa, attended film school in Berlin, and would later return to Haiti, becoming minister of culture in 1996.

Peck has placed himself at the center of Exterminate All the Brutes as a narrator, scholar, and witness. He relays large passages of those aforementioned books alongside personal anecdotes and footage of his family. “I am an immigrant from a shithole country,” he says early on. For the past few years, such catty anti-Trumpisms were often cause for eye-rolling—they had a tinge of liberal cringe, all posturing, no politics—but in this context, in a film explicitly concerned with colonialism and genocide, slavery and authoritarianism, the few moments where Peck addresses Trump directly hold more weight. Perhaps this is because he positions Trump as a continuation of American empire, rather than some vulgar exception to its otherwise sterling international record. He quotes Obama: “America was not born as a colonial power,” then replies, “Well, actually, it was.”

Curiously, one of the few Trump bon mots Peck elides is “fake news,” a phrase that might make a fitting thesis statement for the film. Not in the sense of an—ugh—Orwellian rejection of truth, but as a promotion of critical thinking. The film states that our understanding of “the West” stems from a compelling super-narrative, a Eurocentric telling of how the modern world was won—by triumphing over evil, primitivism, communism, and so forth. But rather than providing a singular counter-narrative, Peck’s film functions holistically as an anti-narrative. The very first scene presents a native of the Seminole Nation, then names the actress playing her and has that actress walk through an active set, with costumed characters moseying about, make-up artists and camera operators hard at work. From the outset, fact is fiction. Once Peck’s own narrative is revealed to be constructed, it allows the viewer to question all narratives—including the notion of history itself.

“Any historical narrative is a particular bundle of silences,” Peck says, again quoting Trouillot, then adds: “Our job as filmmakers, writers, historians, image-makers, is to deconstruct these silences.” The bulk of Exterminate All the Brutes operates in the didactic mode: in the first episode alone, you have brief expositions on the Seminole Nation, rising racism in Sweden, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Tsenacommacah and John Smith (of Disney fame), Papal-certified genocides, Hitler and the Holocaust, the perils of settler-colonialism and private property, and the story of how an 1888 rubber patent led to the great looting of Africa. The result is history as cacophony, as affecting as it is educational.

Most of these history lessons are made up of archival footage or photographs, though some sequences are animated. Others are told through dramatizations of real-world and fictional events, nearly all of which feature, for whatever reason, Josh Hartnett. He functions as a kind of time-traveling talisman, the historical constant of whiteness through the ages. His character is always sick, coughing, wounded—he has a viral presence. Sometimes he takes part in genocide or slavery or mutilation; other times he just watches. Hartnett also grounds the audience during episodes of temporal flux, such as when a contemporary, multicultural group is lectured to by phrenologists of the past.

These sporadic narrative sequences are often the film’s least successful, fluctuating between melodramatic and nonsensical. One has Hartnett navigating for a Black missionary somewhere in Africa. Making their way up the river, the pair stumbles upon a group of slaves in coffles. The slaves are white and blonde. The Black priest is disgusted; Hartnett sort of furrows his brow. While Peck’s provocative alternative histories serve the greater purpose of delegitimizing Western narratives, it never helps to be hackneyed—the most egregious example of which sees Hartnett taking a mental health break from doing ethnic cleansing, rinsing away his misdeeds in a nearby river and literally washing the blood from an American flag.  

It isn’t always the case that the obviousness of Peck’s images works against his purpose, however. The film’s second episode, “Who the F*** is Columbus?” opens with a scene of “Ahatti” in 1492—Columbus and his men landing on what would become Haiti, falling to their knees and thanking God for their discovery. The indigenous inhabitants, initially seen only in close-up, march down to the beach to the tune of some peppy jazz and beat the Europeans back into the water. As they do, we realize they are dressed in modern garb—singlets, cargo shorts, flip-flops. There is some profundity in this small detail, amplified by the recurrence of these anachronistic “native” figures throughout the film, a sense of future haunting past. The Columbus sequence in particular seems to prophesy an imminent revenge of colonial logic, subverting the staging of land and sea: refugees appearing en masse on Western shores.

If Peck’s film is focused on deconstructing our Eurocentric contemporary history—the history of colonialism, essentially—then the figure of the displaced colonial subject intervening in this history is particularly potent. The concluding chapter of this history, we know, is bound to be one of refugeeism, awfully amplified by climate disaster and earth’s exhausted resources. Western policy in the last few years has determined itself against the refugee for this reason, readying walls and super-cops and angry ethnonationalists to beat them back into the water, back into historical silence.

Guilt and pride are perhaps so prevalent today because they are understood to satisfy the limits of our interaction with the past.

Perhaps the most revelatory aspect of this film, which Peck refers to as a “miracle,” is the fact that it’s airing on HBO—a network hardly known for the radical, anti-imperialist politics espoused here. (How far does that Columbus Day discussion in The Sopranos stray from reality?) Josh Hartnett, the white man who awkwardly takes top—and only—billing on this film, is therefore perfect as a surrogate for the yet to be converted, a tour guide for perpetrator trauma. It also explains why the sole expression he wears throughout the film is “white guilt.” I would have been there, the affluent, white HBO-viewer might think, but at least I would have felt bad about it. In her essay The Imperialist Character, Hannah Arendt tells us that this is something of a post-facto fantasy. The defining attitude of the imperialist, she argues, was not guilt but “aloofness.” Totally detached from the reality it oversees, aloofness is “a more dangerous form of governing than despotism and arbitrariness” because, at least in the instance of exploitation, oppression, or corruption, ruler and subject “still live in the same world, still share the same goals, fight each other for the possession of the same things.”

The flip side of guilt is pride—like our Proud Boys who “refuse to apologize for creating the modern world.” (It’s hard not to think of Baldwin when you hear that line: “I picked the cotton, I carried it to market, and I built the railroads under someone else’s whip, for nothing.”) Guilt and pride are perhaps so prevalent today because they are understood to satisfy the limits of our interaction with the past—a non-place that exists now only as a narrative. Its empathetic provocations, be they guilt or pride, anger or sorrow, can help to demystify the present and edify future actions, stoking the demand for reparations and revolutions. But it is important not to treat historical intervention as a reparatory, revolutionary thing in and of itself. Land acknowledgements and other Lest We Forget maxims often position history as a kind of penance, where the story overlays the actuality and, like a magician’s cloth, disappears the thing itself. This is the cruel trick of history: beckoning past to present, conjuring the dead like a séance, it reminds us that our attempts to change the future are always also attempts to undo the past. Trouillot, again, perfectly captures the sense of futility that accompanies such moments: “As long as the conversation involves Europeans talking about dead Indians, the debate is merely academic.”

Despite the many faults of Exterminate All the Brutes, Peck is right to call the film a miracle, and it seems foolish not to celebrate his achievement. Media empires like HBO are some of the most far-reaching consequences of Western hegemony today. That a well-funded, well-publicized spectacle like this might reach an audience and prompt them to say, “Honey, I think America is a little fascist,” is encouraging for anyone concerned about contemporary culture’s increasingly rightward turn. In Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said acknowledged that, as critics of empire, “we write and speak as members of a small minority of marginalized voices,” and that our opponents “belong to a wealthy system of interlocking informational and academic resources with newspapers, television networks, journals of opinion, and institutes at their disposal.” The value of Peck’s small miracle is obvious, then, in that the wealthy system has been made to spread the message of the marginalized. Whether that message can ever evolve beyond the “merely academic” is a question for the future.

James Wham is a writer based in New York. His work has appeared in Film Comment, Cineaste, and Reverse Shot.

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