Raoul Peck is a director who feels deep and evident comfort bringing together different manners of storytelling. His 2016 documentary about James Baldwin, “I Am Not Your Negro,” was notable not merely for the brilliance and insight of Baldwin but for its blending of the late author’s recollections with narration and explication of the times in which Baldwin lived and the figures who were his contemporaries. Over a relatively short running time, the film’s braided threads of history, of commentary, of context, and of eloquently phrased anger came together to become more — more powerful and more insightful — than even an optimistic moviegoer might have expected.
On HBO, Peck attempts to bring his maximalism to an even grander target. With the new four-part series “Exterminate All the Brutes,” he goes beyond even the ambitious goal of using the words of a single writer to explain racism in America. He brings seemingly all he has learned over a lifetime of reading, filmmaking, and thought to the question of genocide and enslavement. As Peck, speaking in voice-over, asks the audience: “I just want to understand: Trading human beings, what sick mind thought of this first?”
It’s the first five words of that quote that most sum up Peck’s mission. In service of his desire to understand, he travels on a journey of the mind through various works of literature, including Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” That novel gives the series its title — it’s the stated goal of the mad Kurtz, whose wicked desire for conquest is both subhuman and recognizable throughout our history. Brief allusions to the just-concluded Trump era crop up, but Peck is interested in a story that has played out over the far longer term. Elsewhere, Peck’s narration evokes the work of Sven Lindqvist, an essayist, and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, a historian researching Native American culture. He also draws upon his own personal history as an emigrant to Brooklyn from Haiti and a filmmaker who’s traveled the world.
All of this is overlaid with compelling visual iconography, from ambitious shots of the American landscape to stagings of an imagined history of whiteness. In those vignettes, Josh Hartnett plays a sort of malign force that exists to pillage and plunder in various settings throughout time. Carefully doled out and cannily playing off of Hartnett’s tendency to brood on-camera, these segments propose a history that’s told on behalf of the victims, rather than by the victors.
None of which is new, exactly: The film itself cites the work of “People’s History of the United States” historian Howard Zinn. But the questing, curious way in which Peck brings together inquiries and observations and potent visuals makes for a powerful and immersive experience. His sweeping vistas speak to a sort of elemental beauty mankind has sought to conquer over time; his use of animated charts depicting slave trades and the degradation of the southern half of the world show us how that conquest has tended to take its form in dominating one’s fellow man. One especially striking shot comes at the end of a segment depicting a skirmish between native people living their lives and European colonizers: Though the brief battle seems won, suddenly a fearsome armada appears on the horizon. For those whose story Peck seeks to tell, the onslaught never stops.
Peck’s description of his upbringing and adult life lends the sense of a person who’s been given little reason to be loyal to any of his adopted homes. It’s little wonder, then, that his intellect quests so broadly, that his mind feels so at home in our world, and that he’s so at ease in imagining connections from the personal to the literary to the global. (It is worth pausing to give HBO credit for supporting a documentary so free-ranging and so unwilling to settle for easy conclusions.) This is a project whose poetry and its ability to look into the heart of human darkness feel linked.
Rather than referencing the present moment to a fault, Peck is working on a grand scale and a sort of geologic time, measuring our history in acts of cruelty. He does so with a visual imagination and an unblinking-ness that will leave those viewers who are up for the challenge dazzled and, perhaps, changed.
“Exterminate All the Brutes” premieres on HBO April 7 at 9 p.m. ET.