A year-end present, that the final film screened is among the best. Centered around a star-making performance and not belittling audience intelligence with the familiar “based on a true story,” Hotel Rwanda moves us to deep emotion and, naming names but not belaboring non-interventionist culprits, to great shame.
Though he claimed direct descent from Solomon and Alexander the Great, Emperor Theodore of Ethiopia could only cringingly “hope, that when your people arrive, they will not despise me because I am black; God has given us all the same faculties and heart.” Racism and indifference have not lessened, so a-hundred-twenty-six years later, the West hustled its citizens and diplomats out of another African ex-colony, took away its history, and, to a little hand-wringing, watched “the fastest genocide in modern history” while a million people were slaughtered in three months.
The particular country was Rwanda, formerly Germany’s then Belgium’s property, writhing with civil war sparked by Hutu-Tutsi tribal hatred. Irish director/co-writer Terry George’s Hotel Rwanda shockingly (yet “peripherally” for the PG-13 rating) captures the resultant horror, accompaniment to the relatively calm tie-and-jacket real-life heroism of reluctant Paul Rusesabagina (who's listed as "Consultant"). Along with drink- and radio RTML-fuelled bloodlust and cruelty, the story fairly includes good as well as bad on both sides, as in Belgian Sabena Corporation’s humane president (an uncredited Jean Reno) and Irish Red Cross worker Pat Archer (Cara Seymour), but the film belongs to Don Cheadle, as initially cautious Hotel Mille Collines Assistant Manager Rusesabagina.
Just turned forty, in this his thirty-sixth film (with a directorial début currently in post-production), the Midwesterner emerges as an actor to be reckoned with. His African-English accent impeccable, his business attire spotless -- he breaks down trying to change from a bloodied shirt and tie -- he is suburban ranch-house cautious, a faithful respectable employee to whom frantic victims turn as “the only Hutu they can trust” in the face of his fellow tribesmen’s machete madness. At first his reasoned concern is for Tutsi wife Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo), their children -- one of them (Ofentse Modiselle, uncredited as Roger) already traumatized by the blood -- and immediate relatives, but events spiral and he must make decisions about other lives, their neighbors’ and those of helpless townspeople for whom he is a last resort.
As in The Killing Fields and its “Year Zero,” the powerful evacuate their own -- some depart less eagerly than others, but they all do go -- leaving non-whites to the turmoil colonialism has helped create. With the manager gone and Paul in charge -- ironically, only disaster brings about such a “promotion”-- he must maintain European luxury and decorum, keep a divided staff in line, and somehow find food, space, sanitary facilities and safety for hundreds of refugees who come in across the manicured lawn, disproportionately children targeted “to wipe out the next generation.”
A man who measures his words, Paul grows into the situation like Oskar Schindler, as he accepts responsibility and juggles flattery, diplomacy, lies, charm, bribery and threats in keeping various wolfish factions from the door. Faithful Dube (Desmond Dube) is sympathetic but useless, and much of the hero’s character and inner workings come out in intimate talks with Tatiana, whose thankless rôle is therefore largely reactive.
There are some out-and-out lapses and moments of melodrama, a confusing sequence or two -- Gregoire’s (Tony Kgoroge) exact actions and fate; a flat tire from a bullet and the whole convoy confrontation with dashiki’d irregulars and uniformed troops -- and once-upon-a-time convincing Nick Nolte rasps through another perfunctory performance as U.N. “peacekeeper” Canadian Colonel Oliver, but the horror is here to rub the world’s guilt and conscience.
Filmed mostly in South Africa, Hotel Rwanda closes to Bob Marley-sounding Wyclef Jean’s “Why can’t Africa be the United States of Africa, why can’t Africa unite all its kingdoms?” A portion of the film’s profits is designated for the Rwanda Survivors Fund.
(Released by United Artists and rated "PG-13" for violence, disturbing images and brief language.)