Film Reviews: Wednesday, January 19, 2005
Don Cheadle and Sophie Okonedo keep a cautious eye on the violence destroying their homeland in ‘Hotel Rwanda.’
Africa Screams

Don Cheadle tries to keep death outside the doors of Hotel Rwanda.


There was an enlightening exchange of dialogue in the recent thriller Collateral. Shortly after cabdriver Jamie Foxx finds out that Tom Cruise is a contract killer, the cabbie asks the killer who his victim was. The hit man says, “What do you care? Have you ever heard of Rwanda? ... Tens of thousands killed before sundown. Nobody’s killed people that fast since Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Did you bat an eye, Max?” The driver, his mind still reeling, mumbles in response, “I don’t know any Rwandans.” Right there is a glimpse into why the world’s largest genocidal campaign since the Holocaust was allowed to happen, and happen, and happen, with scant intervention (humanitarian or otherwise) from the West. In a few months in 1994, roughly a million people were killed.
As a bit of consciousness-raising about that human-rights catastrophe, Hotel Rwanda is an adequate piece of work. As filmmaking, it’s disappointingly ordinary. As history, it offers some false comfort — its setting in the past allows it to evade the point that the ethnic strife depicted is still going on (and has mostly spilled over into neighboring Congo), with Hutus and Tutsis still murdering each other by the thousands even now.
However, as a document of an extraordinary performance by a great actor, it’s invaluable. That actor, Don Cheadle, has a surprisingly light résumé for a guy with a world of cachet from his roles in movies by Steven Soderbergh and Paul Thomas Anderson. For every terrific performance on television (Picket Fences), stage (Topdog/Underdog), or film (Devil in a Blue Dress), he’s taken on a clunker, either in Hollywood (Mission to Mars, Swordfish, The Family Man) or indie movies (Manic, The United States of Leland). With most of the latter recently behind him, it’s great to see him back in a role that allows him to demonstrate his tremendous resources as a performer.
He plays Paul Rusesabagina, the real-life manager of the Hotel des Mille Collines in Rwanda’s capital city of Kigali in the mid-1990s. In 1994, tension erupted between the ruling Hutu tribe and the minority Tutsi tribe after Tutsi rebels assassinated the country’s Hutu president. The military and Hutu militias proceeded to exact terrible revenge on the Tutsis, who had formerly been the country’s ruling elite under the Belgian colonial government. While the carnage raged a few yards outside the grounds of his four-star hotel, Rusesabagina sheltered more than 1,200 people, both Hutus and Tutsis, keeping the massacre at bay by maintaining the pretense that the refugees were hotel guests and doing a frenzied, intricate dance with local warlords, his employers in Brussels, and ineffectual U.N. peacekeepers.
Cheadle plays Paul with the manner of an exceedingly polite maitre d’ and a voice sunk to a refined whisper by years of recommending lobster dishes to rich tourists and local VIPs. Paul is an unlikely hero, a man with no violence in him, armed only with a knowledge of where to buy the best Scotch whiskey and Cuban cigars. His cultured façade, his social skills, and his nonthreatening demeanor all help him survive — a pitchfork-waving firebrand in his place would have been shot dead. Cheadle, who’s in almost every scene, captures the many facets of Paul’s heroism: his growing awareness of the encroaching horror, his fastidious attention to the knot of his tie and which rooms need to be tidied, his delegation of tasks to an occasionally restive staff, and his judicious use of lies and flattery on people whose protection he needs. Servility may be Paul’s default mode, but the actor’s quicksilver nature is put to good use playing a character who’s frantically trying to think of ways to keep as many people alive as he can. This is a movie that turns ass-kissing into a noble deed, and Cheadle’s flawless embodiment of this elegant man in a tight spot drives home the movie’s point.
It’s too bad the rest of the film isn’t as subtle as he is. Northern Irish filmmaker Terry George, who started out writing Jim Sheridan’s films, achieves one genuine moment of shock when a disgusted Canadian U.N. official (Nick Nolte) tells Paul, “The West, the superpowers, we think you’re dirt. ... You’re not even a nigger. You’re an African.” That use of the n-word by a white character is a brave, stinging rebuke to Western indifference when that continent suffers huge losses of life. Elsewhere, though, George indulges in cheap dramatic excesses, from a box of machetes breaking open early in the movie to the jeopardy faced by Paul’s wife (Sophie Okonedo). The movie oversimplifies the conflict; the Tutsis are presented as innocent victims when in fact they had their share of blood on their hands. Other recent films have done much more justice to the complexities of life in Third World hell: Jonathan Demme’s documentary The Agronomist, Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund’s City of God, and Raoul Peck’s Lumumba. Don Cheadle’s acting alone makes Hotel Rwanda well worth seeing, but the film’s adherence to dramatic conventions does too good a job of cushioning us from the harsh realities of the situation.

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