Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle) at first appears a smooth operator. Always impressively self-collected in crisp his white shirts and shined shoes, Paul shuttles between the swank and seedy sides of town, namely, Kigali, Rwanda. It’s 1994, and he manages the Mille Collines, a Belgian-owned luxury hotel. His employers are distant, his clients privileged, and neither can imagine how he must wheel and deal each day to maintain their sense of comfort.
But at the beginning of Hotel Rwanda, you get a clue: en route to the black market warehouse where he purchases beer, lobster, and soda pop “for the children,” he must reassure his driver, the quietly loyal Dube (Desmond Dube), made understandably anxious by reports on the car radio that the Hutus mean to exterminate the “Tutsi cockroaches.” For Paul—a Hutu married to a Tutsi, Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo)—the conflict is both old news (existing since before the Belgians occupied, divided, and finally abandoned Rwanda in 1962) and now painfully percolating to the surface. Though he’s just seen a crate full of machetes break open at the warehouse where he’s picked up the week’s supplies, Paul refuses to believe violence will erupt. “Time is money,” he insists, and rushes back to work.
This faith in his own work ethic keeps Paul from acknowledging the turmoil erupting all around him. Even as Paul is telling Dube not to worry (“It’s just business”), an agitated demonstrator stops their vehicle and attempts to grab the Tutsi Dube. Paul appeases the assailant by waving a “Hutu power” shirt given him by his black marketer, George (Hakeem Kae-Kazim); shortly thereafter, Paul is again mollifying worries, this time voiced by his wife’s sister and her husband, insisting that they just go home and wait for the seeming hysteria to dissipate.
He will regret his words in a matter of hours. What Paul does not anticipate is the relentlessness of the brutality. By the time the treaty-signing Hutu Major General Juvenal Habyarimana is assassinated and the Interahamwe (Hutu militia) begin hacking away at the designated “cockroaches” with machetes, it’s too late for Paul or any of his relatives to escape. (The eventual toll will be close to a million murdered in 100 days.) And so, he brings Tatiana, their three children, and a van full of neighbors to the hotel, where he spends a series of desperate days wheedling angry would-be killers into letting 1200 Tutsis and moderate Hutus survive.
Based on the real Paul Rusesabagina’s experiences, Hotel Rwanda tells a crucial, horrific, and altogether too familiar story, of one man’s courageous efforts against seemingly inexplicable devastation and cruelty, as the Hutu power-grab turns swiftly into a kind of implacable madness. At least one viewer has praised it as an “African Schindler’s List,” an assessment that’s partly right: the film turns historical tragedy into personal drama, only indicating the appalling details of the mass murders and focusing instead on the hero’s emergence. Paul’s initial calculations reveal early his capacity to placate the fears of both the victims and the perpetrators of the rampage; it is precisely his skill at negotiation, haggling over niceties, that allows him essentially to “get over” on the oppressors, long enough to save some few, forever grateful people.
He has some help in this endeavor, to be sure. His primary ally is the Canadian-born Colonel Oliver (Nick Nolte), an increasingly frustrated United Nations “peace keeper,” which means, in his words, that he is unable to “make” peace, only stand by and watch as the mostly faceless Hutu thugs roar through the city in jeeps, wearing colorful wigs and waving their bloody weapons, taking aim at anyone who even “smells” like a Tutsi. Colonel Oliver and his men roll through the film occasionally, each time long enough to show the UN’s (and by extension, the world’s most powerful nations) refusal to take responsibility or any action against the carnage. The similarities to other situations—say, the current one in Darfur—are plain, as tv and radio report official quibbling over use of the word “genocide” to describe what’s happening. As Oliver bluntly informs Paul (who appears stunned to hear it), the Rwandan crisis is not on any Western radar screen, because those involved are “not even nigger[s],” but merely Africans.
The film emphasizes the racist framework for the genocide by showing white hotel guests being evacuated (some with their dogs in tow), as the Rwandans hover in the rain behind, knowing their fates. It also offers, in addition to Oliver, three other instances of white folks who speak for or embody a specifically raced sense of shame: the Belgian hotel owner (Jean Reno), who frets for Paul by phone and, at one point, calls “the French,” who have supplied weapons to the Hutus; a steadfast Red Cross worker, Pat Archer (Cara Seymour); and a couple of journalists, Jack (Joaquin Phoenix) and David (David O’Hara, recently excellent as well in Stander). The former’s role is generally to arrive at Paul’s doorstep with truckloads of frightened orphans, commiserate briefly with him, then set off again in search of more innocents to save, the latter are granted slightly more complicated parts. Hardened carousers and war-coverage veterans, they undergo a transformation that reflects both the magnitude of the violence and the knowledge that their own work—bringing such images to U.S. and European tv screens—will have little effect. As Jack puts it, “If people see this footage, they’ll say, ‘Oh my God, that’s terrible,’ and they’ll go on eating their dinners.”
At the same, symmetric time, Hotel Rwanda offers particular incarnations of the Hutu bullies, including one of Paul’s employees, Gregoire (Tony Kgoroge), who takes the occasion of Paul’s harboring of Tutsis for personal abuses, like drinking champagne and sleeping in suites with beautiful, voiceless women; a local general, Augustin Bizimungo (Fana Mokoena), whom Paul regularly placates with cigars and booze; and George, who casually encourages Paul to join up with the cause, if only to save himself. Paul, of course, takes up the opposite cause, almost in spite of himself. And yet, the film argues, once he finds his calling—to resist the genocide—Paul never looks back.
Hotel Rwanda is an ambitious film in its way, particularly as it appeals to a wide (PG-13) audience, exposing this repressed history by not showing too much. This strategy is often very effective, as when Paul and Gregoire drive one foggy night over a road filled with corpses, their tires crunching bones and squashing flesh before they even realize what they’ve done. Though these images remain both too vast and too abstract to comprehend fully, the next scene is all about the effects of such horror. Back at the hotel, Paul begins to change his shirt, only to rip it off in a very intense, very private display of agony, makes clear the severe toll taken by what we don’t see.
The movie’s insistent focus on his experience, with only a few glimpses of the chaos outside the hotel grounds, makes the story comprehensible and tragic, but also barely references the broad structures that create such atrocity. While the scene is extreme, it is also not unique, born of years of poverty, “humanitarian crisis,” rage, and exploitation by Western powers. For all its occasional melodrama and emotional roller-coastering, Hotel Rwanda is an important film, for its commitment and engagement, as well as its insistence that viewers, like Paul, make real choices.