Crime and Culture in the Much Bigger Picture: HBO’s ‘Exterminate All the Brutes’

I just read a review of a new docu-series on HBO, Exterminate All the Brutes, which seems fitting for the discussion of this blog.

The series takes a long and broad look at the ways “whiteness” has been shaped and enforced around the globe and in the modern age. More explicitly, the four-part series is about the “making and masking of history, digging deep into the exploitative and genocidal aspects of European colonialism — from America to Africa and its impact on society today.”

The series is described as a “hybrid” series because it entwines historical documentary with personal essay format, created by Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck. And in case you’re wondering, the title comes from a line of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

There are two paragraphs from the Vox review by Alissa Wilkinson that jumped out at me as situating Peck’s film within the scope of the cultural exploration of this blog:

Even putting aside the ways it blows up historical narratives, it’s just astounding that this series exists. Documentary series have thrived in the streaming age, with a seemingly endless cavalcade of stories about true crime or bizarre cults. You could argue that Exterminate All the Brutes both fits and transcends those categories. It rigorously unspools centuries of crimes committed against vast swaths of humanity. And those crimes were the direct result of a kind of cult, one that centered some idea of a perfect human — white, male, cisgender, able-bodied — as the apex of our species. The powerful vehemently drew lines between who’s “in” (the “civilized”) and who’s out (the “brutes”), and made sure the social order was vigorously maintained at all costs.

This paragraph reminds us that our history is a history of crime, and often the worst crimes are so vast in participation and repercussions that they are hard to describe and approach as crimes because, as this blog often supposes, the cultural narrative of “crime” often obscures the realities of criminal actors, agendas, and repercussions. While I might not agree that white supremacy is the ground zero or agenda connecting the crimes of modernity together through a kind of anthropological or biological imperative, as this reviewer suggests, I do believe it is the facilitator. In that sense, the word “cult” is probably fitting, in a cultural sense of identity-shaping and community-building. White supremacy is an organizing medium for committing crimes that transfer wealth and power from the many to the few. The myth of the perfect man or perfect human, like all myths, is a drug and a commodity. And as such it is the actors who market and move the drug/commodity that are to blame for the crimes.

And this is where culture comes in to play.

Perhaps most blindingly, Exterminate All the Brutes vibrantly illustrates the role of culture in perpetuating myths of supremacy. Movies, yes; Peck has plenty to say about the images we’ve been served up for virtually all of cinema’s history. But also photographs, and stories, and speeches, and songs, and phrases like “brutes” and “savage,” even the tying of darkness to something brutish and bad and uncivilized. What we see, say, and hear, the pictures we look at and the casual phrases we throw around — they all make it possible for us to accept what seems like it ought to be unacceptable. If a culture is made up of the things that people create to make sense of the world around them, then the opposite is also true: Culture tells people what they ought to believe, and if you tell people long enough that their genetics entitle them to rule over and to “civilize” others, they’ll believe it.

This paragraph articulates a kind of premise for this blog and most cultural studies frameworks. This blog project is tracing the construction and circulation of crime as a narrative. And narrative is something fundamental to human psychology and civilization. Culture is where and how narratives are shaped and distributed (though, you could also say that culture isn’t the only place that narratives function).

There is no such thing as “crime” without narrative, or without culture to establish and circulate that narrative.

So, I’m a sucker for projects that consider the bigger picture of how narratives shape what we know of “history” or “crime,” and this series seems to be tackling one of the biggest historical crime narratives of all: globalization based on white identity.

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