Release Date: February 4, 2005 (wide release date)
Rating: PG-13 (on appeal for violence, disturbing images and brief strong language.)
Run Time: 121 min.
Director: Terry George
Actors: Don Cheadle, Sophie Okonedo, Nick Nolte, Joaquin Phoenix, Desmond Dube, David O’Hara, Tony Kgoroge
In “The Screwtape Letters,” C.S. Lewis said, “In peace we can make many ignore good and evil entirely; in danger, the issue is forced upon them in a guise to which even we cannot blind them. There is here a cruel dilemma before us. If we promoted justice and charity among men, we should be playing directly into the Enemy's hands; but if we guide them to the opposite behaviour, this sooner or later produces (for He permits it to produce) a war or a revolution, and the undisguisable issue of cowardice or courage awakes thousands of men from moral stupor.”
Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle) is a man who has been cruelly awakened. Like most people, he has trouble fathoming just how cruel man can be, but he discovers this when the president of Rwanda is assassinated, and marauding soldiers take to the streets at the maniacal urgings of Hutu Power Radio. Soon, the machete-wielding soldiers are killing every Tutsi in sight.
The conflict between the two groups goes back to the Belgian founding of Rwanda. Ignoring tribal boundaries, the Belgians divided the country into those with lighter skin, whose passports were stamped with the word “Tutsi,” and those with darker skin, who became “Hutu.” The Hutus were the servant class, and some were murdered by Tutsis. Now the Hutus are in control, and they intend to exterminate every “cockroach” they can find.
An adept businessman who was educated in Belgium, Rusesabagina manages the Belgian-owned Hotel des Milles Collines in Kigali, the Rwandan capital. Having cultivated the hotel’s reputation as a luxurious oasis, Rusesabagina knows how to solve problems, calm people down and take care of just about anything. These skills come in handy when the Hutus show up, requesting the guest list. At this point, Rusesabagina’s “guests” consist primarily of Tutsis who have come to the hotel seeking refuge. All of the Europeans have fled, thanks to a United Nations convoy that, under armed guard, only allowed whites to board the bus.
That’s about all the U.N. is doing, much to the frustration of Colonel Oliver (Nick Nolte), a French-Canadian who requests thousands of U.N. soldiers but gets only 270 – for the entire country. Not only that, but forbidden by international treaty to ever fire their weapons, Oliver’s men must stand by as the killing continues, unabated. He says, rather ruefully, “We’re peacekeepers. Not peacemakers.”
Rusesabagina uses expensive cigars, the contents of his safe and a dwindling stock of single-malt Scotch to bribe and cajole the Hutu officials that he has long entertained as hotel guests. He also uses a lot of flattery, apologies and, when necessary, lies about how the Americans will prosecute them for war crimes. Rusesabagina is thus able to protect the Tutsis, which include his wife (Sophie Okonedo) and three children. He goes without sleep, makes calls to Belgium and even ventures out for food, in the middle of the night. Bartering with an old acquaintance who is now a Hutu captain, Rusesabagina observes naked, caged Tutsi women and later, hundreds of bodies littering the roads. So when he runs out of Scotch, he knows their time is up.
The point is underscored early on in the film when a cynical journalist (Joaquin Phoenix) shows Rusesabagina footage of the genocides. Although shocked at the violence, Rusesabagina is relieved, because he knows that when these images are televised, they will mobilize foreign armies. The journalist gives him a reality check. “If people see this footage, they’ll say, ‘Oh, my God, that’s terrible,’ and then they’ll go on eating their dinner,” he says. Oliver echoes this when he says, “You aren’t even a n----, Paul. You’re an African. No one cares. They’re not coming.”
As we all know, that’s exactly what happened. The year was 1994 and, under the leadership of President William Jefferson Clinton, we did absolutely nothing. The U.S. State Department, talking about the uprising on the radio, would only admit to “acts of genocide,” rather than the full-scale holocaust that was taking place – even though they knew exactly what was happening. The media barely covered the war. As a result, a million people were slaughtered in less than 100 days – the fastest genocide in world history.
Rusesabagina’s story is a sobering one about the dilemma we might all face someday. His neighborhood looks like any American suburb, and the Rwandans are exactly like us – families, neighbors, coworkers, churchgoers. As we watch the film, we feel a creeping sense of reality – along with overwhelming shame, for having allowed these atrocities to happen. Because he is Irish, director Terry George (“In the Name of the Father”) understands this, and he wisely focuses his film not on the entire war but on one person. It is a powerful, devastating story.
In his first major leading role, Cheadle deserves the Best Actor nomination for his portrayal of Rusesabagina. He has captured all the African nuances – the deferential subservience in front of Europeans and Americans which in no way means stupidity, as well as the character’s brilliant cunning. His quiet reserve – he puts on a clean shirt, tie and suit every single morning – underscores his pent-up emotions, so that when he does fall apart, in one devastating scene, we want to cry with him. Okonedo has also captured a nomination for Best Supporting Actress, and she, too, is well-deserving. Far removed from the brazen prostitute she played in “Dirty Pretty Things,” she is truly beautiful to watch onscreen. We sense her devotion to her family, her fear and her courage. Together, the pair offer a powerful message about the strength of marriage, and how it serves to empower us in the most terrible of times.
Nolte has been in the press a lot for personal problems, but he does a good job as the gruff U.N. colonel. I had no idea his character was French-Canadian, however, until I read the press notes. An accent, even nuanced, would have improved his performance. The cinematography is good, with a slight documentary feel when handling the killings, which are seen mostly offscreen, through a fog or in grainy footage, and usually from a distance. It is the dead bodies, however – hundreds and hundreds of them – which have the greatest impact, as well as the film’s suspenseful pacing. Hang on to your seat – and your hankie.
A film of great moral and cinematic value, “Hotel Rwanda” is a sobering reminder of just how important it is for those who have power – whether financial, physical or moral – to intervene, when great evil is taking place. If we do not, then who will? And then who will be there for us, when it is our turn?
AUDIENCE: Mature adolescents – with a prior history lesson, to prepare them.
- Drugs/Alcohol Content: Characters drink and smoke throughout the film, sometimes heavily; character uses beer and liquor as bribes.
- Language/Profanity: A dozen or so obscenities (including one f- word) and several profanities (GD, OMG, OG, J).
- Sexual Content/Nudity: Women in bikinis; man in robe (appears to have just had sex); woman’s cleavage and naked women in a cage who are crouched and cowering in fear (side view – very brief).
- Violence: Most of the violence is conceptual, in that it is threatened throughout the film, and revealed through repeated shots of dead bodies and the sound of gunfire. In many scenes, soldiers wave guns and machetes while people cower in fear. A child is discovered covered in blood, but safe, and he is traumatized. Explosions go off, rocket missiles are fired (setting buildings on fire) and cars and convoys are shot at and attacked. Several times, a gun is held to someone’s head. We hear about various murders throughout the film. People are beaten, but not brutally, and mostly offscreen. A character is ordered to kill another character (but refuses). There are several instances where people are killed onscreen, e.g. shots are fired while people are running down a road, and some people fall; and another scene where we see, from a distance, through grainy press footage, people being hacked with machetes (but no blood or gore). In two scenes, characters have blood on them. In another scene, a character orders his wife to commit suicide with the children rather than allowing them to see their parents murdered.