Hotel Rwanda (2004; Dir.: Terry George)
By Daniel Barnes
This biopic about the genocide that occurred in Rwanda in 1994 is one of the few Best Picture nominees of the last several decades that I had yet to see. Unfortunately, it is not all that much different from the many well-intentioned but mediocre Best Picture nominees that we have all seen before.
It is fairly standard for the Academy to single out movies about important subjects told from the safest and most privileged vantage point possible. The King’s Speech was WWII from the perspective of Windsor Castle, and the central threat in Argo is not imminent violence or Islamic fundamentalism so much as it is poor, dark-skinned people speaking a foreign language loudly. The hero in Hotel Rwanda, which opens on the eve of the genocidal violence, gets to be the most noble because he has the most resources.
Our “eyes” into this world of long-festering tribal violence that led to one million brutal deaths is Paul Rusesabagina, played wonderfully and without shortcuts by Don Cheadle. Paul is a luxury hotel manager who believes that his high-level connections and ability to negotiate business transactions will protect him from the upcoming conflict, even as his eyes pool with dread.
Hotel Rwanda was the first major motion picture to address the Rwandan genocide, even though it shields us from most of the atrocities. The film makes token attempts to explain the history of the Hutu-Tutsi conflict, which was a psychologically disturbing by-product of European imperialism, but Hotel Rwanda is very much pitched at non-African whites who are more interested in simple stories of nobility and heroism.
To his credit, though, screenwriter and director Terry George makes that first-world apathy a significant piece of the Hotel Rwanda narrative. Joaquin Phoenix plays a war photographer who captures footage of the genocide that American stations neglect to air. The UN forces, led by a surprisingly believable Nick Nolte, are prevented from engaging the Hutus, and are eventually forced to withdraw. It leads to some powerful moments (“You’re dirt.”), but also some distracting cameos (Jean Reno?), and has the effect of making every authoritative voice in the film a white one.
When the violence erupts and Tutsi men, women, and children are wantonly butchered in the streets, Paul instantly begins using his money and connections to save people. The hotel becomes a refugee haven, and for a while, Paul is forced to keep up the ruse that it is a functioning luxury resort. There are powerful and upsetting moments, especially towards the end as the safe bubble of the hotel is popped (“I have nothing left to bribe them with.”) and Paul is forced to recognize the enormity of the slaughter.
Cheadle manages to hold the entire film together almost singlehandedly, making hay out of cinematic ineptitude and questionable narrative choices by tapping into a vein of survivor’s guilt. Much like Oskar Schindler (and this film would very much like to be an African Schindler’s List), Paul is protected from the violence and yet culpable for every life he can’t save. Still, you get the feeling that almost any random person caught outside of the hotel walls would have made a more worthy subject for the film.
Hotel Rwanda deserves some credit for at least spreading awareness about the genocide, and especially about the western world’s culpability of inaction, but any importance it achieves by merely existing is undermined by the conventional storytelling and perfunctory direction. Tellingly, George’s film career has come to a dead-stop in recent years, and his follow-up to this Best Picture nominee was the dreadful moral tale Reservation Road.
The tendency to oversell inherently powerful moments in Hotel Rwanda is constant, the use of music is incredibly cloying, and many of the supporting performances are too broad. Even worse, the abrupt ending throws in both an “inspiring”, sun-drenched freeze frame and a solemn scroll of facts and figures. For example, we learn that the conflict “ended” when the Hutus were driven into the Congo. Problem solved! Oscars, please.