Canada/Italy/United Kingdom/South Africa, 2004
U.S. Release Date:
Theatrical Aspect Ratio:
Don Cheadle, Sophie Okonedo, Nick Nolte, Joaquin Phoenix
Keir Pearson & Terry George
If you're like me, you probably paid little attention to the attempted genocide that occurred during the civil war in Rwanda in the mid-1990s (more than one million people died). I remember reading about it in the papers and occasionally seeing clips on the news, but it didn't leave much of an impression. (Or, as one character in the film puts it: "If people see this footage, they'll go, 'Oh my God! That's horrible!" then go on eating their dinner.") Hotel Rwanda serves a couple of important purposes - explaining what happened in the African country during 1994 and personalizing the story. Some critics have argued that the movie doesn't have a hard enough edge, but I think they're missing the point. This is a powerful film and it doesn't pull as many punches as its detractors would have us believe.
Hotel Rwanda introduces us to Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle), the then-manager of the five-star Hotel Milles Collines in Kigali. When Hutu extremists took over the country in 1994, their first goal was to exterminate all of the Tutsi people (whom they call "cockroaches"). With the U.N. mired in red tape that rendered their peace-keepers ineffective and most of the world turning a blind eye, there was little to stop the Hutus from slaughtering the Tutsis. Paul, a Hutu married to a Tutsi (Sophie Okonedo), takes a stand, allowing Tutsi refugees to camp out at the hotel. Initially, he is able to employ bribery to keep the soldiers away, but, when his stocks of wine and whiskey run dry, he finds the circumstances increasingly desperate and he must resort to extreme measures to save not only the refugees but his family.
Hotel Rwanda offers a stirring reminder of the kind of senseless horror that can result from race and/or religious hatred (not to mention the kinds of horrors human beings can visit upon others of their species). What happened in Rwanda isn't an isolated example. Conflicts that are occurring now re-enforce the notion that mankind is incapable of learning from history. Of course, most people don't know much about Rwanda, and that's something director Terry George (Some Mother's Son) is attempting to change with this movie. Hotel Rwanda is brutal and shocking when it needs to be, but it also has great emotional scope and power. We find ourselves enmeshed in Paul's struggle, sharing his despair at the warfare tearing apart his country, his frustration and anger at the U.N.'s inability to act, and, eventually, his hope for a better tomorrow. Paul has been dubbed Rwanda's Oskar Schindler (he saved more than 1000 refugees), and, although this movie is not on par with Steven Spielberg's Oscar-winner, one can understand the validity of the comparison.
This role could represent a career performance for Cheadle, whose forceful and multi-dimensional portrayal keeps Hotel Rwanda at a consistently high level. Although Cheadle owns this movie, it would be unfair not to mention the supporting work of Sophie Okonedo, who brings depth and humanity to the part of Tatiana, Paul's wife. Nick Nolte plays the head of the U.N. peace-keeping forces with a phone-it-in acting job that isn't going to earn him many raves. Joaquin Phoenix has a small part.
Hotel Rwanda is an important film. Unfortunately, that kind of classification often means a quick box-office death, which would be especially unfortunate because not only does the film deserve to be seen, but a fast bomb will result in Cheadle being overlooked at Oscar time. Whatever the movie's ultimate fate, however, I am grateful for having seen it. Not only did it give me a better-rounded perspective on the Rwandan tragedy, but it introduced me to a modern hero who stood against tyranny and oppression at the risk of losing all that was dear to him.