Cast: Don Cheadle, Paul Rusesabagina, Sophie
Okonedo, Nick Nolte, Joaquin Phoenix, Desmond Dube, David O’Hara,
Cara Seymour, Fana Mokoena, Hakeem Kae-Kazim ,Tony Kgoroge Mosa
Sometimes we’re a beat-down group of people: terrorists,
Internet broadcasts of beheadings, and senseless roadside bombings
have become staples of the news these days. No wonder we all love
a feel-good story that affirms the goodness of humankind. And it’s
all the better when that story is based on a true event. So how
could anyone not like director Terry George’s
gripping film based on a real-life story of hotel manager who managed
to save hundreds of lives during the Rwandan genocide of 1994? The
winning formula is already there from the git-go, but that said,
Hotel Rwanda as a finished product is a mighty engaging
piece of filmmaking.
Internal political strife in some far-away country can sometimes
be too complicated to follow but here the background information
is cleanly laid out. The tragic legacy of Rwanda first began with
the arrival of the Belgians in 19th century. After decades of enslaving,
mutilating, and murdering the local population when they failed
to meet high work quotas for rubber extraction, an international
outcry at last ensued. The retreating Belgian administrators turned
management of the colony over to Tutsis, a tribal group who tended
to be fair-skinned, successful property owners. The darker-skinned
Hutu workers, who made up the bulk of the toiling population and
had suffered greatly at the hands of the Belgians, were once again
shut out of politics and economic opportunity. The situation remained
static until the mid-1980s, when at long last the Hutus were able
to win the national presidency. Though the Hutu president and his
administration faced momentous difficulties, it was hoped stability
in the region could at last be achieved. This was not to be the
case. The president’s plane was shot down on April 6, 1994,
in all likelihood by radical Tutsi extremists and his death initiated
the rallying cry for revenge. The Hutus created vigilante militias
who swept across the countryside. They were not interested in finding
those responsible or executing Tutsi rebels. Years of oppression
and anger that had been building up for decades gave way, and all
Tutsi men, women, and children were targeted. When it was all over,
approximately 960,000 people were dead.
George’s story documents how Paul Rusesabagina
(Cheadle) turned the prestigious hotel where he
worked into a refugee camp. With its international connections and
diplomatic clientele, the Hutu were reluctant to enter the hotel
to remove Tutsis. Recognizing the hotel could serve as a temporary
zone of safety, Rusesabagina was able to take in hundreds of Tutsis
and keep them safe until they could be moved to another location.
At the risk of sounding utterly cliché it nevertheless
has to be said that Don Cheadle’s performance as the beleaguered
hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina is truly masterful. He so completely
embodies his character with intensity and emotion that he is frankly
unrecognizable from any past performance. If he doesn’t get
a nomination of any sort, it will only be further validation of
the increasing insignificance of the whole Oscar spectacle. Foreign
actresses don’t tend to get much recognition at all near Oscar
season, but Sophie Okonedo also does some powerful
acting. As Paul’s wife, she has to do it all—cower,
shriek, sob—and she does it convincingly. She also acts her
way through what has to be a record-breaking number of near-death
scenarios at the hands of armed Hutu soldiers. Far less impressive
though, is Nick Nolte. These days he can only play
one flavor, and that flavor is gruff. Once again he plays the one-dimensional
role as UN Colonial Oliver, who wants to be John Wayne
but is denied the authority to intervene.
The downside to Hotel Rwanda is that, in many ways, it
is sometimes a heavy knock-off of both The Killing Fields,
a horrific retelling of the genocide in Cambodia in the mid-1970s
and, more recently, Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s
List, the story of Jews protected from the Nazis by a factory
owner. In one instance after the other, the comparisons are obvious.
There is the usual cast of characters: the rescuing savior with
a heart of gold who musters strength from within to face the unimaginable;
the stubborn foreign journalist who risks life and limb to get the
story out, in the end to an indifferent western media. And the comparison
couldn’t be any more obvious than in one scene in particular,
when Rusesabagina is driving his car around in the fog and pulls
over to the side of the road. He opens the door and almost falls
out onto piles of bodies discarded on the side of the road. Overwhelmed
with horror, he struggles with great effort to get back in the car.
Sorry, but seen it already when Dith Pran escapes
from the Khmer Rouge and stumbles into an open field that is littered
with thousands of skulls and bones.
Of course all of this borrowing and copying can be forgiven, because
there is probably only so much formula involved in a “genocide”
film. It is actually more disturbing to think these types of films
could develop into a shelf of their own to at the local video store.
I can almost hear it now: “Excuse me, but do you have a genocide
section? I’m looking for one in particular.” Perhaps
the larger issue is why we have yet again another film documenting
the wholesale massacre of any given civilian population while the
western world sits quietly on its hands? We keep vowing it will
never happen again, but there never seems to be a shortage of material
Take a pal and pay full price for both tickets.
Itís worth a full-price ticket.
Itís worth a matinee ticket.
Wait for video rental.
Check out the video from the library, if you must.
While we would never encourage anyone to destroy a video...