Once in awhile, a film will come down the pike whose subject matter is so vital as to almost render the cinematic trivialities of “good” or “bad” unimportant. In fact, a tribute should be made to the filmmakers for merely getting it made period and thus bringing its topic into expanded consciousness and conversation. Terry George’s Hotel Rwanda deserves your consideration for that category. For this is the kind of film that hesitates to entertain you, preferring instead to task you with a most noble chore: inform you, nay, shake you from your existence – even if for a moment – pushing your awareness of the larger realities of this world that you may have ignored or not known about before.
Rwanda features Don Cheadle as Paul Rusesabagina, the hotel manager of the exclusive Hotel Des Milles Calline, a four star resort that caters to mostly rich tourists in Kigali, Rwanda. Rusesabagina is excellent at his job, catering to every culinary and alcoholic whim, no matter how difficult to obtain. A groomed and tailored suit, a look-you-in-the-eye handshake and rare bottle of single malt Scotch are the tools he employs to maintain the fine image of the hotel and himself. Plus, it doesn’t hurt to stock favors and contacts should the appropriate time come. Indeed, that time comes, and quickly. When a delicate peace between the two factions that make-up the Rwandan populace – the Hutus and the Tutsis – breaks, a genocidal chaos breaks out as a militia-sponsored, hatchet-wielding Hutu mob ravages the countryside for any Tutsi man, woman and child that it comes across (eventually going on to kill more than a million of them). As Nazi-esque propaganda crackles out of the radio, Rusesabagina’s trendy hotel becomes overrun. First tenuously protected by a UN envoy headed by Colonel Oliver (Nick Nolte), the hotel becomes a refuge for fleeing Tutsi families and sympathizers. The tourists, along with Rusesabagina’s boss, are all evacuated, leaving him in charge. As the nightmarish horde approaches, Rusesabagina’s acquired layers of protection - particularly the West and the UN - all peel away, leaving him alone to protect his family and the hundreds of displaced souls forced into his care.
Considering that writer/director Terry George was born in Northern Ireland, it may come as no surprise that he is able to portray bloodstained national strife in a completely convincing, almost documentary-level reality. Amidst this staged anarchy, he also gets excellent performances from his leads. Sophie Okonedo, as Paul’s wife Tatiana, is marvelous in her first big movie role. As far as Mr. Cheadle is concerned, I have always counted myself among the growing legions of his fans. However, in most of his parts, it seems he is left to chew secondary scenery that all tastes somewhat similar. In Rwanda, Cheadle is finally given the room he deserves to channel his immense talent and thoroughly disappear into a fully fleshed-out character. He easily earned the Oscar nomination he received for this film.
It shouldn’t be lost on a contemporary American audience that it was Belgian invasion and colonization of Rwanda that caused the rift between the two groups. The invaders separated the populace strictly by their perceived appearance before putting one group in power and leaving a mess behind. Like Roland Joffe’s Killing Fields before it, one hopes that a film like Hotel Rwanda makes at least some of those viewers recognize that their backyard does not end where its native journalists or averted government eyes say it does. I, personally, would prefer not to learn about this kind of barbaric tragedy years after the fact, in a movie.