Hotel Rwanda almost didn’t get off the ground. You see, veteran supporting actor Don Cheadle is a favorite actor for directors but he’s not exactly box-office gold. Initial producers of Hotel Rwanda wanted none other than Will Smith to star. I don’t know about you good people but a sobering, challenging movie shedding light on the Rwandan genocide would lose some credibility if Smith was the above-the-title star. Producers also wanted Denzel Washington as a candidate; a better choice but still not right. The true-life portrayal of Paul Ruseabagina needed to be done by an actor that didn’t look like he could kick your ass. Paul was an ordinary man that didn’t ask to be a hero, not a hero looking for a fight. Cheadle was the perfect man for Hotel Rwanda. It just took a while for it to happen.
Back in 1994, Rwanda underwent a tumultuous civil war. In Rwanda, there are two ethnic groups, the Hutus and the minority Tutsis. Though the two look indistinguishable, there is an underlying tension because way back when Rwanda was under Belgian colonial control, the Belgians separated the Rwandan people by arbitrary rules like nose size, skin tone, etc. There is a rising tide of Tutsi resentment (radio propaganda refers to them as “cockroaches” needing to be exterminated). The Rwandan president has been assassinated and Hutu radio broadcasts are already pointing the finger at Tutsis.
Paul Ruseabagina (Cheadle) is a Rwandan hotel manager that stocks up favors by scratching the backs of the right people. The wheels of Rwandan authority need to be constantly greased, and Paul knows when to deploy a well-timed gift, joke, or bribe. Paul?s wife Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo), a Tutsi as well as their children, is concerned when she starts seeing neighbors taken away at night. Paul assures her that their Tutsi relatives will be safe. Hutu rebels begin to start corralling neighborhoods to root out any Tutsis. Paul and his family retreat back to the hotel. As the violence increases more refugees arrive at the hotel for sanctuary, but Paul must keep the illusion that the hotel is still operational to ward off violence.
The United Nations promises to do something, but they remain only peacekeepers and not peace enforcers. The commanding officer (Nick Nolte) laments that he has only a handful of U.N. peacekeepers in charge of the whole nation. The United Nations and the West does do something: they evacuate all the white people. Citizens of Western nations are escorted out of the conflict, while they leave the rest of Rwanda to its own devices. Paul?s clinging hopes for Western involvement get bleak, and he assumes the responsibility for saving as many lives as he can, Hutu or Tutsi.
Cheadle gives one of the best performances of the year and he’s been nominated for a Best Actor Oscar. The strength of his character’s power lies in Paul’s ordinariness. He’s not a figure of intimidation, nor is he some kind of altruistic saint. There’s more than a passing resemblance to Oscar Schindler in Schindler’s List. Like Schindler, Paul is a man reluctantly pulled into risking his life for others and by the end he becomes consumed with saving as many lives as he can. Cheadle is so commanding that he can make you wince just by watching the weariness in his eyes.
There’s a moment late in Hotel Rwanda, where Paul is stalking the hallways trying to find his wife and children. And in an instant he suddenly remembers careful instructions he gave to his wife. Paul nearly bowls over with the sudden pang of terror but keeps his stride. It’s a sharp and powerful moment where the audience thinks alongside Paul and experiences the same awful gasp. In that moment, as well as countless others, Cheadle has worked his way so deep into his character that the two are one in the same. Cheadle has long been one of the most underrated actors, and now with Hotel Rwanda there is no doubt that Cheadle is one of the greatest living actors we have.
But Hotel Rwanda is not just a one-man show. Sophie Okonedo also garnered a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. Okonedo is no pushover and she does more than needle Paul when it comes to the well being of their family. She’s a strong, caring, thoughtful woman. What makes her even more impressive is that, as a Tutsi, she could be murdered at any time. She gives an equally powerful performance of a woman finding strength amongst her own fear.
Writer/director Terry George keeps the emotion high by smartly relying on restraint when telling his portrait of horror. The events of the Rwandan genocide are so appalling, that it would have been so easy, and even understandable, had George loaded his film with scene after scene of graphic violence to jar the viewer. However, George refrains from numbing an audience with violent depictions, and instead chooses quieter, more somber moments that turn out to be far more terrifying than just seeing blunt violence. Hearing an aid worker recount witnessing a massacre of children to wipe out the next generation of Tutsis will chill you to the bone. There are some disturbing moments, like when Paul takes a very bumpy ride in the mists, but George refuses to numb an audience and works our emotions to a breaking point.
Hotel Rwanda is sobering and very emotional, but you will also leave the theater with an overwhelming feeling of shame. It’s easy to watch films about dated atrocities like depictions of the Holocaust. You can say, “Well, I wasn’t alive. If I was, and people like me, surely we would not sit back and let such actions take place under our watch.” Not this time. Not with Hotel Rwanda. Everyone seeing Hotel Rwanda more than likely was alive in 1994, and we did exactly as a character warned: we watched what was happening on TV and went back to eating our dinners. Nolte’s U.N. rep tells Paul that the West refuses to see him and Rwandans as valuable (“You’re worse than a n****r [to them]; you’re an Af-ri-can.”). You?ll feel many emotions while viewing Hotel Rwanda and the deepest and longest lasting may be shame.
The film is clearly in the genre of “outrage cinema,” normally a genre that overpowers a viewer’s emotions. In lesser hands Hotel Rwanda would have been unrelenting to maintain a level of shock. George allows an audience to feel for the story’s characters before he lets the horrors loose. The result is that an audience attaches itself to characters because of who they are, not just because of the anguish they endure. As the intensity of the situation mounts we feel stronger ties to the people of Hotel Rwanda. That is good cinema.
Hotel Rwanda is an emotionally gripping portrait of the dignity found during our darkest days. George has skillfully created a sobering movie. Cheadle and Okonedo deliver wrenching performances as the faces of good amongst ongoing genocide. This isn’t like Black Hawk Down where the faces of screaming, angry black people merge into one black form the audience uneasily grows to hate. In Hotel Rwanda, the heroes are everyday Africans, the bad guys are everyday Africans, and the West is the apathetic referee unwilling to act. Hopefully after George’s film, it’ll be hard to hear about a million massacred and go back to eating your dinner.
Nate’s Grade: A