A Q&A with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Make way for the next brilliant documentary by Raoul Peck! His four-part HBO docuseries, Exterminate All the Brutes, examines the history of Native American genocide and American slavery to reframe the overarching consequences of European colonialism. If you’ve seen his Academy Award-nominated James Baldwin documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, you won’t want to miss this! It begins airing on April 7. Peck based his series on three books, two of which are from Beacon: Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States and Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Beacon Broadside editor Christian Coleman caught up with Dunbar-Ortiz to chat with her about her involvement with the production.
Christian Coleman: An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States was originally published in 2014. Is this the first time anyone has approached you about using it as source material for a film adaptation?
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: Yes, it was the first time a filmmaker showed interest in the book. I never imagined that any filmmaker, even if they loved reading the book, would be interested in using it in a documentary. But Raoul Peck is not any ordinary filmmaker. I have long admired his work. His first documentary, from 1991, was Lumumba: Death of a Prophet, which is about the first president of the former Belgian Congo colony that won its independence in 1960 and was then assassinated with CIA involvement. But he made it a personal story, telling his own story as an Afro-Haitian. All his films are extraordinary, the dramatic one and the documentaries.
CC: How did you get news about the series and that Raoul Peck would be referencing your work in it?
RDO: Raoul Peck called me on my cell phone! I had received an email the day before that I sort of ignored, saying that a production company in Paris was interested in using the book in a film. I was out walking to a meeting when the call came. He said, “I am Raoul Peck,” and I thought it might be a crank call and nearly cut off the call, but then he said he loved my book and was making an HBO docuseries on colonial genocide. Beacon Press had already been contacted to obtain the film rights, but I didn’t know that, and they were dealing with the film company, Velvet Film. I was truly stunned that the filmmaker I most admired in the world would read my book and want to make it a part of his film. He explained to me that he had already been working for a year with two other history texts when my book came to his attention in the Spring of 2018, one by Haitian historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, which was also published by Beacon Press, and the other by Swedish writer, Sven Lindqvist, “Exterminate All the Brutes:” One Man’s Odyssey into the Heart of Darkness and the Origins of European Genocide. He said he had never conceived of United States continental imperialism, only US imperialism, and of course, the thirty plus years that the United States occupied Haiti. He then asked me if I would work with him on it, with such humility in his voice, as if I might decline!
CC: Wow! How much involvement did you have in the production?
RDO: We met in New York City for three days in June 2018. An assistant had already gone through my book and brilliantly excerpted key passages. He had not begun developing the script, only the research. He asked me to be a consultant, so I was on the Velvet Film payroll for the next six months, going over the script as he wrote it. Unfortunately, the historian Trouillot died an untimely death and never was able to work on the project. Despite having a terminal illness, Sven Lindqvist did work closely with Raoul in shaping the concept, and he passed away, but they had accomplished a great deal. Throughout 2019, every step of the way, Raoul kept me informed. Then in late November, he brought me to New York to view the four hours; it wasn’t complete, as there were reenactments with an actor to be filmed and the addition of many images, but the structure and story were there, and it is truly amazing. Nothing like this documentary has ever been made. There are many documentaries that are good on European colonialism, but none ever include United States colonization of North America.
CC: On social media, you said Peck’s choice of using your book as source material was radical. Tell us why.
RDO: I think all three books are radical histories; Lindqvist documents the connection between the Holocaust and German colonialism and genocide in Africa in the late nineteenth century, and Trouillot’s book is a radical indictment of the West’s failure to acknowledge the most successful slave revolt in history, in Haiti, and thereby distorts the whole European history of colonialism and its continuing crimes. So, my book fits in very well, but I found it radical that Raoul recognized that the Indigenous Peoples of North America also experienced classic European colonialism and genocide, first by the British Empire, then by the independent United States in its one hundred years of wars against the Indigenous peoples to take the continent and import settlers to people Native land. It was certainly a risk, I thought, in that rarely is US colonial history located within the larger European colonial conquest, with the US even seen as anti-colonial in expelling the British empire.
CC: And what does your book mean to you now that it, along with the other two books the series references, is part of a visual presentation of the consequences of European settler colonialism?
RDO: It certainly feels like a validation at another level than the success of the book in reaching tens of thousands of people and being used in high school and university courses. I believe the documentary will reach another audience who may be interested to read the book. Raoul Peck is a great intellectual as well as being a great filmmaker, and his respect for literature is unusual, I think, for someone in the visual arts.
About Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz grew up in rural Oklahoma in a tenant farming family. She has been active in the international Indigenous movement for more than 4 decades and is known for her lifelong commitment to national and international social justice issues. Dunbar-Ortiz is the winner of the 2017 Lannan Cultural Freedom Prize, and is the author or editor of many books, including An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, a recipient of the 2015 American Book Award. She lives in San Francisco. Connect with her at reddirtsite.com or on Twitter @rdunbaro.