Directed by Terry George
Screenplay by Terry George and Keir Pearson
Starring Don Cheadle, with Sophie Okonedo, Joaquin Phoenix, Nick Nolte
Rated PG-13; 110 minutes
In the unlikely event that I ever do anything more heroic than recycle my bottles, newspapers and plastic, I want Don Cheadle to play me in the movie. Oh, I know there would be some acting challenges for him: I’m a whiny white guy, he’s African-American — but after seeing his mesmerizingly honest, astoundingly skillful performance as Paul Rusesabagina in Hotel Rwanda, I’m convinced Cheadle can play just about anything or anyone. He deserves every plaudit he’s receiving for his portrayal of this real-life person, an Oskar Schindler-like unlikely savior who sheltered some 1,200 people from horrible deaths during the Rwandan genocide of 1994.
The film, directed and co-written by Terry George, captures the nearly unimaginable brutality that was unleashed during this period, as the majority Hutus took their revenge on the Tutsis, eventually killing nearly one million people and creating a three-million-person refugee crisis. George convincingly portrays the ethnic hatreds between the Hutus and Tutsis (animosities encouraged by the country’s former colonial power, the Belgians, who obviously learned the political game of “divide and conquer” as well as anyone) along with the greed, opportunism and savagery that bubbles over during any type of societal breakdown.
Rusesabagina was the manager of the Mille Collines, a luxury hotel catering to Europeans and elite Africans in Rwanda’s capital Kigali. The first few scenes establish him as the ultimate connected guy, a man who knows all the right people and, more importantly, knows their favorite brand of Scotch and their preferences in Cuban cigars. Paul is the perfect hotelier: deferential yet authoritative, dignified and resourceful. Cheadle shows us a man who takes pride in how well he does his job, and is smart enough never to let on how smart he is.
The beauty of Hotel Rwanda and Cheadle’s performance is that Paul’s skills, so suited to the civilized world, are also the ones he needs as the horror encroaches. The hotel’s guests are soon joined by orphans, nuns, Tutsis and moderate Hutus, eventually filling the corridors of this five-star hotel. Paul has to be not only Oskar Schindler but an endlessly inventive MacGyver, literally running from one crisis to another, begging, bullying and bribing to keep the various threatening forces both outside and inside the hotel at bay, to keep people safe for just one more hour, one more day.
Cheadle’s achievement is to show us the real, sometimes frightened person that Paul is behind this capable façade. In the first part of the movie, he makes sure never to be seen in public without his white shirt, dark sports jacket and tie. After witnessing some of the indescribable horrors his countrymen have been perpetrating, his transformation is marked by his inability to correctly tie the Windsor knot that was once his badge of honor. He doesn’t wear a tie again throughout the rest of the film.
As impressive as Cheadle’s performance is (he’s well-matched by Sophie Okonedo’s work as Paul’s wife Tatiana), the film itself left me with conflicted responses. The crises come so thick and fast that Hotel Rwanda sometimes teeters on the verge of unintentional comedy. In addition, the film is constructed to make audience members feel guilty about sitting in a comfortable theater while atrocities like this one rage, but there’s no real magic formula to know when to interfere and when to stay out of these types of conflicts. Admittedly these issues are outside the scope of the film, which is a heart-tugging melodrama, not a seminar on world affairs.
One of the main points of the film is that the international community essentially abandons the Rwandans to their fate (Nick Nolte plays a U.N. colonel who is, you guessed it, gruff but caring). Yet Paul finds his real strength when he realizes he can’t rely on any outside force to save him and the refugees; although the U.N. does ultimately help, it’s mostly overstretched or impotent through most of the film.
Nolte’s character diagnoses the outside world’s disinterest in a key scene, when he tells Paul the West’s real attitude towards citizens of the “Dark Continent”: “You’re dirt. You’re not even a nigger. You’re African.” Yet in marketing this film, the two actors featured in addition to Cheadle and Okonedo are Nolte and Joaquin Phoenix, who play relatively unimportant roles but are, yes indeedy, white. This quartet are the only ones with bios on the official Hotel Rwanda web page, yet there are several actors with equally or more important roles in the film who are — I know you’ll be shocked by this — not white.
I shouldn’t quibble about United Artists’ marketing strategy in promoting the most well-known actors George was able to get in his film; Hotel Rwanda is going to be a hard enough sell as it is. But it’s disturbing how pervasive all brands of racism are. I found myself thinking “Cheadle is as good an actor as Denzel Washington, why doesn’t he get more leading roles?” Then I realized I was only comparing him to African-American actors. Cheadle is as good an actor as pretty much anyone working in films today, and a lot better than most.
If Hotel Rwanda is melodramatic and manipulative, it’s also important and, considering the subject matter, relatively restrained. It’s good to know that there are heroes like Paul Rusesebagina, and that they can be found in the most unlikely places.