A ‘Radical Masterpiece’ on Colonialism and the Roots of White Supremacy

The film borrows its title from Swedish historian Sven Lindquist’s book who was quoting The Heart of Darkness’ Kurtz in his final delirium declaring “exterminate the brutes”.

Born in Haiti but raised from age 8 in the Congo, Raoul Peck has made a ground breaking documentary film on colonialism and white supremacy.  The filmmaker’s 1991 film “Lumumba” laid bare the facts surrounding the assassination of Congo’s first and only democratically elected Prime Minister.  He has now explored the ways widespread belief in the superiority of white Europeans and Americans led to genocide, the slave trade and colonial plunder and rule over five hundred years.  “Exterminate All the Brutes” is a four episode television series hailed by more than one reviewer as a master work and the pinnacle of Peck’s filmmaking career.  The popular U.S. news magazine Time called it a “radical masterpiece”.

Financed by the U.S. based HBO and now available only on their streaming service, the filmmaker calls his latest work an “origin story” for white supremacy.  In interviews focused on the film he emphasizes that his intention was not to point fingers or accuse but to contribute to making change possible.  Peck is dedicated to the conviction that armed with the truth, people’s collective action will bring about the changes needed to free us all from perpetual warfare and staggering inequality. “What must be denounced here” Peck has recently stated “is not so much the reality of the Native American genocide, or the reality of slavery, or the reality of the Holocaust; what needs to be denounced here are the consequences of these realities in our lives and in life today.”

Peck begins the series by demythologizing the history most citizens have been taught about the United States.  President Obama’s declaration that “America was not a colonial nation” is refuted by the film’s assertion that “America IS a colonial nation.”  The first episode retells the story of our “settler colonialism” requiring wars on the native American population and the appropriation of their lands and resources. Peck as narrator notes the word “exterminate” derives from the Latin words meaning, “drive out” and “boundaries”

The prevailing mythology of the U.S. as a beneficient nation of immigrants has been elaborated by those in power from the Pilgrim days to the present.  The film’s themes and analysis flow from a change in perspective.  “The whole vision of the film is based on changing the point of view of who is telling the story” Peck told one interviewer.  The first episode dramatizes the fatal encounter of the Seminole female chief Osceola with a commander of the troops assigned to displace the tribe.  “You steal land; you steal life; you steal human beings.  What kind of a species are you?” Osceola asks.

In a later episode the film tells the story of the Haitian slave rebellion and the founding in 1804 of the first nation in the Americas to free all human beings on its soil.  Peck reminds us that the example of the Haitian revolution and former slaves’ democratic rule in Haiti was widely feared in the U.S. In response the U.S. opposed recognition of the new nation until 1862.  Some U.S. political leaders continue to portray Haiti as a “s….hole country” while their powerful northern neighbor  continues to corrupt and manipulate Haitian politicians to the present day. 

This film represents a powerful tool for those who are committed to this era’s project of truth telling that connects the dots of colonial expansionism with current systems that seek to maintain white supremacy and white privilege.  Republican political leadership in the U.S. is mobilizing in defense of  the country’s obstinate but obsolete mythology.  Confronting truths long suppressed is considered a threat to their power.  On April 30 Senate Minority Leader McConnell warned the new administration’s Secretary of Education  that “powerful institutions increasingly subject Americans to a drumbeat of revisionism and negativity about our nation’s history and identity”.

Contrary to McConnell, there is widespread agreement in the U.S. today that if the nation is to progress in creating the multi-racial society we have envisioned its citizens must come to grips with the legacy of slavery and the expropriation and elimination of native Americans. Decades ago, James Baldwin, the subject of Peck’s previous documentary “I Am Not a Negro”, described well the film’s importance.  “Not everything that is faced can be changed” Baldwin stated.  “But nothing can be changed that is not faced.”

The two minute trailer for the film can be seen here:

https://www.hbo.com/exterminate-all-the-brutes

On Comparing “Missa Luba” to “Viva Riva”

Album Cover for 1965 Phillips Missa Luba Recording
Album Cover for 1965 Phillips Missa Luba Recording

In 1954 Father Guido Haazen left his native Belgium and began work as a Franciscan missionary in Kamina, a copper mining center in Katanga, southern Congo.  Within four years, the choir he organized of Congolese boys and their teachers had recorded the international best selling “Missa Luba”.  The originality and power of the music derived from Father Haazen’s giving free rein to the singing of the movements of the mass as a tribal folk song.  Also on the album were several songs of the Luba and Lulua peoples of Congo.

In the liner notes titled “On Hearing the Missa Luba” Studs Terkel wrote, “He (Father Haazen) might have impelled (sic,  ed) European musical values upon the students of Kamina Central School as a house painter whitewashes a wall, obliterating whatever had been there before. Instead, he urged his young proteges to remember the Congolese rhythms and to freely improvise. The joy of being, the thrill of living, was italicized by the accompaniment: Congolese drums.”  Terkel concludes his comments with, “The young singers, whom he has guided, are uniquely themselves: artists of the Congo. Truly, theirs is a religious performance, not merely a “Christian” one.”

In comparing the originality of the Missa Luba recording to the recently released movie “Viva Riva” made in Kinshasa, the movie falls way short as it slavishly follows the conventions of classical American gangster films.  The first widely circulated film made by a Congolese in ten years, “Viva Riva” inspired high hopes among us Congophiles but mostly disappoints. Sticking to the gangster genre’s conventions established by the 1932 “Scarface”,  Riva is alienated from his original family by his appetite for violence and fierce ambition and has to win over the moll of the mobster boss to demonstrate there is a heart inside.  The disastrous ending traditional in the genre becomes in the Congolese version a conflagration created by the gasoline Riva has smuggled out of Angola.

With an opportunity to put on display for the world the riches of Congolese folk culture or of modern pop culture, even the soundtrack fails to rise to the occasion.  How could we not be disappointed by not hearing any of the classical Congolese pop hits of Dr. Nico, Franco or Rochereau in the film’s musical background.?  But more dismaying is the failure to reflect and honor the beauty and strength of the people of Congo except on the most superficial level.

I concede that my disappointment in “Viva Riva” may in part be attributed to my re-experiencing the power of the Missa Luba original recording released in the U.S. in 1964.  Here is an example of Congolese taking a musical genre of the Western culture – the Latin mass – and making it authentically and richly African.  Listening to the album again after forty plus years was like unearthing a soundtrack buried deep within and simply exulting that it had surfaced at the right time.  Listen to the Kyrie clip from the record by going to the amazon address:

http://www.amazon.com/gp/recsradio/radio/B00142RX0I/ref=pd_krex_listen_dp_img?ie=UTF8&refTagSuffix=dp_img

Although we celebrate the attention given the film at several international film festivals and the awards received by its writer and director Dio Tunda Wa Munga, “Viva Riva” is notable primarily for the skill displayed by writer-director Dio Tunda Wa Munga’s skill in imitating conventions of a western cultural genre without making it Congolese or showing off the beauties and strength of his African culture.  The film  is available for instant viewing on Netflix or for purchase as a DVD on Amazon and elsewhere.