Hotel Rwanda


Don Cheadle’s Tour de Force

Main Actors: Don Cheadle, Sophie Okonedo, Joaquin Phoenix, Nick Nolte

Director: Terry George

“I think if people see this footage, they’ll say, “Oh, my God, that’s horrible.” And then they’ll go on eating their dinners.” – Jack Daglish

Once upon a time in a land far away a whole lot of people were murdered while the world looked the other way. Remarkably, repugnantly and horrifyingly, from that sentence alone no one can tell of which land and time I speak. There have simply been too many examples in human history to count. Many of those examples were at a time far removed for most of us. We learn about them from history books and movies and they seem foreign, unfathomable, and we can tell ourselves that we’re better than that now. That the world has changed since things like that happened. But we aren’t better, the world hasn’t changed. Hotel Rwanda reminds us of just how close we all really are to those grainy, haunting images of mass graves and piles of corpses.

Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle) is the house manger of a luxury hotel in Kigali in 1994. He has perfected the art of the schmooze. He remembers what his important and wealthy clients like and makes sure he has it in their hands when they arrive. He knows when to keep quiet and how to use the knowledge he acquires to accumulate favors, should he ever need them. He is tremendously good at his job. Paul also has a wife, Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo) and three children. Paul is Hutu. Tatiana and the children are Tutsi. In Rwanda, in 1994, this distinction literally means the difference between life and death. Essentially a distinction without foundation, the two groups were deemed separate by Belgian colonial powers in the 1800’s. The Tutsi were placed in a position of power over the Hutu that lasted until the end of the colonial era in 1962. Thus were planted the seeds of hatred and discontent that, sparked by a political assassination, burst into a conflagration of violence that shocked the world. Only it just didn’t shock the world quite enough that anyone was willing to do anything to stop it.

Paul, being the only Hutu many of his neighbors trusted, is thrust into a position of reluctant protector, shepherding people to the only safe place he knows. At first concerned about what bringing his frightened friends to his workplace might mean for his job, he soon understands that this is of no consequence. It is not his job that is at stake, it is his life. It is the life of everyone in the hotel – his hotel. This eminently professional man to whom nothing is more important than work and family becomes the only hope for survival for hundreds of people stranded in a nightmare.

Paul Rusesabagina is not a perfect man. He has a large blind spot when it comes to the realities of the world in which he lives. He has too much faith that people are not monsters. While under normal circumstances this could hardly be considered a negative character trait, in this case it is. And a potentially fatal one at that. Don Cheadle is flawless in this role. He brings a quiet dignity to Paul, a blend of the naïve and the canny that allows us to understand why he ends up in this situation to begin with and how he desperately tries to live through it. Cheadle goes through the ringer with this character – from confident (and confidant) to unsettled to terrified to desperate, always maintaining the core of the man, the human being, who could not sit back and watch a slaughter and do nothing. His bleak realization that the world has abandoned Rwanda is gut wrenching, as are the scenes in which he sees for himself the things of which his fellow Hutu are capable. Cheadle is never less than riveting, never less than fully invested in this character, never less than heart-breakingly real.

The supporting cast is uniformly solid as a rock. Sophie Okonedo is absolutely adorable – and tough as nails as Tatiana. She knows what awaits her and her children at the hands of the Hutu Interahamwe (the civilian militia responsible for most of the actual slaughter – though the military did nothing to stop it). Okonedo makes us feel the terror and helplessness. Nick Nolte turns in a nice performance as General Oliver – a U.N. General who finds his hands tied and his power extinguished. Nolte emits frustration in waves, his angry outbursts belying a deeper sense of responsibility. Joaquin Phoenix as photographer Jack Daglish has a small but important role as the character who says what everyone else only thinks. Phoenix does well with this small part, giving a little bit of narrative voice to the ugly reality of world reaction.

Hotel Rwanda succeeds brilliantly. Director Terry George (who shares writing credits with Keir Pearson) puts together a stellar performance from Don Cheadle and a compelling, sickening story and makes it personal. Much like Roman Polanski does in The Pianist, George understands that for this story to have as much force as possible, it needs to be brought from the vast to the singular. It needs a face, one face, to make it real. We see in Paul Rusesabagina what we failed to see a decade ago on our televisions and in our newspapers. The film isn’t about numbers of people slaughtered, historical background or gruesome images of unspeakable carnage. All of those things are covered, but they take a back seat to the efforts, frustration and terror of one man. This is his story, which effectively prevents the image and information overload that makes people shut down and stop listening when it all becomes too horrible.

Hotel Rwanda also looks amazing. In the beginning, Kigali is a bustling, modern urban center with undercurrents of discontent rippling barely beneath the surface. The homes and lives of the people we meet don’t feel foreign, they feel familiar – another step in personalizing the story. Once the violence begins, this landscape changes. From bright colors and crisp images we go to a darker palette and misty, ghostly images. Cinematographer Robert Fraisse washes out colors and features as the world around these people crumbles into the unrecognizable. There is a brilliant scene set on a road roiling with dense fog – obscuring the grim landscape until we are literally on top of it. The pulling away from graphic gore into this dim, still place where we see not the action but the aftermath again prevents overload and desensitization. When we see what is on that road we are as shocked and horrified as Paul Rusesabagina, even though in our heads we know it’s coming.

This is the kind of film that makes you want to shout at the screen, demanding that the people “in charge” do something. It brings sharply into focus how badly the world fumbled the ball when faced with a situation that defines the term “humanitarian mission”. Hotel Rwanda also brings us the tale of one remarkable man (portrayed in one remarkable performance) who understands exactly what he and his country mean to the rest of the world. And in this understanding comes to find a strength of will that makes it possible for him to face death and not turn away in fear. It’s an amazing movie, as well as a healthy smack in the face reminding us that, a mere decade ago, one man took on a responsibility that an entire world had abandoned. Once upon a time, the world looked away. Now it’s time to look back.

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