Hotel Rwanda has been compared to Schindler’s List, and there certainly strong parallels between the two films. Both concern the efforts of ordinary men to shelter defenseless people in the face of genocidal insanity. In both cases, the men in question used their skills as businessmen to bribe, stall or otherwise keep death outside their door. Hotel Rwanda does not, however, deal with a man as deeply flawed as Oskar Schindler. There is no mystery about Paul Rusesabagina’s motives, no question that he was a fundamentally decent man. This is not a flaw in the storytelling, just the reality of the story they are trying to convey.
Another way of looking at this movie is as a spiritual sequel to Black Hawk Down. That the Clinton Administration failed to act to support the UN peacekeepers in Rwanda is not in question and neither is their motive. The bloodshed in Mogadishu and humiliating withdrawal from Somalia left the U.S. government gun shy about committing troops to another peacekeeping mission in Africa. It’s a stunning act of political cowardice with the cost measured in thousands of human lives.
Hotel Rwanda begins by showing Paul Rusesabagina in his capacity as manager of a posh European hotel in Rwanda. We see him move smoothly through all levels of society. A bribe here, some flattery there, and Paul greases whatever wheels need to be greased to make his guests happy. Over this, however, is the ominous voice of a Hutu radio DJ spewing hatred toward Rwanda’s Tutsi minority. At first, people are optimistic about a UN-brokered peace accord that is about to be signed.
Just as the country moves toward peace, the Hutu president is killed and his death is blamed on the Tutsis. An extremist Hutu militia, with the tacit support of the military, being a bloody purge against the Tutsis that will eventually claim 800,000 lives in just three months. Paul, a Hutu, uses every skill, every favor, every ounce of charm to eventually protect the lives of 1,200 Tutsis who take refuge in his hotel.
Another strength of this film is that it goes to great lengths to make sure that the audiences understand the basis of the Hutu/Tutsi conflict, assuming correctly that many Westerners would be ignorant of the country’s history. The Tutsis were favored by the Belgian colonists, mostly because they were taller and had more “European” features. This favoritism often came at the expense of the Hutu majority, whose resentment seethes and then erupts when the Belgians leave. By the early 90s, an uneasy, fragile peace had settled in, and it shattered in 1994 with the eruption of the genocide.
Don Cheadle is deeply effective as Paul, an ordinary man rising to meet circumstances that might completely overwhelm another. Sophie Okonedo is touchingly vulnerable as Paul’s Tutsi wife, Tatiana. Nick Nolte gives a powerful performance as the embittered UN commander who lacks the manpower and support to do what he knows has to be done. Joaquin Phoenix has a brief role as a western journalist who tries to report what he sees even though he knows it will fall on deaf ears back home.
What really drew me into this film is the sheer ordinariness of the characters. Westerners often make the mistake of thinking of Africans as people in a far off land who talk funny, dress funny and aren’t anything like us. Hotel Rwanda shows us an African middle class that is far more similar to an American or European middle class than it is different from us. Allowing ordinary people from one culture to completely identify with ordinary people from another, completely different culture is probably just as great an accomplishment than documenting the genocide that caused this movie to be made in the first place.