In his new HBO series “Exterminate All the Brutes,” filmmaker Raoul Peck jumps around the world, and goes forward and backward in time, tracing the history of white supremacy and genocide. Peck also narrates the four-part series.
He draws heavily on several books by historians, including one from Swedish author Sven Lindqvist, also called “Exterminate All the Brutes.” That phrase comes from the character of Kurtz in the Joseph Conrad novel, “The Heart of Darkness.” If that feels like a lot of historical and literary references, hang on, Peck is just getting started.
Peck uses a range of film techniques — archival footage, clips from classic Hollywood movies, animations, original live-action scenes and home video from Peck’s own life. Born in Haiti, Peck moved to the Democratic Republic of the Congo as a child and then to New York and France before going to film school in Berlin.
Peck joined KCRW in 2017 to talk about his Oscar-nominated documentary “I Am Not Your Negro,” which explored racism in the U.S. through the writings of James Baldwin. He says after that film, he was sent lots of screenplays by other people, but he wanted his next project to be his own.
Peck says it was HBO who gave him the time and space he needed to work, plus some money to pay researchers. And even when it wasn’t entirely clear what the project would look like, he was upfront about what the topic would be.
“On my contract, it was clearly stated: It’s a film about colonization, extermination and genocide. That’s one of the rare cases that you have those three words on the contract in Hollywood.”
That film evolved into a four-part series, which includes Josh Hartnett playing a racist everyman committing atrocities throughout history. It’s a different kind of role for Hartnett, who’s typically thought of as playing the good guy. Peck says that’s one of the reasons he cast him. He also explains that having a 20-year friendship with Hartnett made it easier to have the intense discussions the role required.
Peck also reflects on the double-edged sword of progress in Hollywood. While diverse films may be more widely available, he says there are more options than ever fighting for viewers’ attention, and that in a world driven by profit, it’s only the biggest money makers that will ultimately win.