About midway through Hotel Rwanda there's a powerful, if somewhat heavy-handed, scene in which a good-hearted U.N. colonel (Nick Nolte) makes clear to hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle) why the West won't intervene to stop the ongoing Rwandan genocide. "We think you're dirt, Paul," he explains sadly. "You're black. You're not even a nigger. You're an African."
One assumes that no one from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was ever quite so blunt with Hotel Rwanda director/producer/cowriter Terry George. But it's hard to shake the sense that the film would have been considerably more celebrated had its hero and victims not been so dark skinned and far away. Yes, the Academy did grant the film three Oscar nominations (for Actor, Supporting Actress, and Original Screenplay), but it was considered a long shot in all three categories. Moreover, it wasn't nominated for Best Picture in a year so weak that even the treacly Finding Neverland made the cut and the vacuous, overrated The Aviator was actually considered the front-runner.
The contrast between the fortunes of Hotel Rwanda and those of recent Holocaust films such as Schlindler's List, Life is Beautiful, and The Pianist is difficult to miss. The latter are of course easier for us to applaud in part because of their cultural proximity--there's none of that Africans-have-been-killing-each-other-for-centuries cynicism muddying our moral waters. But Holocaust films are also easier to applaud thanks to their temporal distance. Most American moviegoers were not alive during the Shoah, and those who were are unlikely to feel in any way culpable. We were the good guys, after all, at least by the final act.
The same cannot be said for the Rwandan genocide. Over the course of 100 days in 1994, nearly one million ethnic Tutsis were slaughtered by the majority Hutu. The West knew what was going on and did virtually nothing. We evacuated our diplomats and businessmen and journalists and left the Tutsis to die, thousands of them each day, many if not most of them by machete blade.
One of the most remarkable things about Hotel Rwanda, then, is that the movie is not a sermon--or at least not only a sermon. Its backdrop may be this recent history of African horror and Western disgrace but in the foreground it tells a tale intended less to shame than to inspire, that of Paul Rusesabagina, a real-life luxury hotel manager who used his wits, connections, and sheer decency to save more than 1,200 Tutsi and Hutu refugees from the carnage that claimed the rest of his country.
When first we meet Paul, he is buying a case of Cuban cigars with which to grease his business dealings with the Rwandan and foreign elite who congregate at his hotel, the Belgian-owned Milles Collines. A man without politics, he is equally friendly with Nolte's colonel and with top figures in the Rwandan army and the Interhamwe, the Hutu militia that would carry out most of the genocide.
Though Paul is Hutu himself, his wife is Tutsi. (The bitter irony, as the film explains, is that the distinction is largely artificial; when Rwanda was a Belgian colony, the populace was divided into two categories, with those who looked more "European"--lighter skin, narrower noses, etc.--being dubbed Tutsi and the rest Hutu.) Paul is disturbed by the incendiary talk being broadcast by the "Hutu Power" radio station, but he is convinced it will all blow over. When a Tutsi neighbor is dragged from his house by soldiers one night, he does nothing; when Tatiana's brother and sister-in-law consider leaving the country, he dissuades them. But after the Rwandan president's plane is shot down, allegedly by Tutsi rebels, the intermittent Hutu repression blooms into a nationwide killing spree, a scattered yet methodical effort to exterminate the "Tutsi cockroaches."
Spurred by Tatiana, Paul shelters several neighbors, first in his house and later at the hotel. There, the number of refugees he's shielding continues to grow, as the Red Cross, the local Catholic mission, and even the United Nations bring him their orphans, their homeless, their wounded. Paul keeps them alive through a series of bribes, favors called in from powerful friends, and fantastic lies (e.g., telling a Hutu general that the Americans are "watching everything" with spy satellites). He wields the Mille Collines's prestige, too, as a weapon, ensuring that it continues to run smoothly (at least to the outside eye) and intimidating the army and the Interhamwe with its aura of European power and sophistication. And he waits, with Tatiana, his children, and more than a thousand unofficial wards, for an ever-less-likely rescue from the chaos and death lurking beyond the hotel walls.
Hotel Rwanda is a harrowing film, the rare exercise of its kind that succeeds in conveying human tragedy on a scale both vast and intimate. The magnitude of the horror outside the hotel compound is presented only in glimpses--the crumpled bodies and crazed, exultant militiamen that line the roadsides, the zoom-lens footage of a machete massacre shot by a jaded American journalist (Joaquin Phoenix)--but, contrary to the view of some oddly bloodthirsty critics, these glimpses capture the ongoing madness and butchery more than adequately. The danger to Paul and Tatiana and their many charges, meanwhile, is chokingly palpable. Time and again, death stands on the doorstep, in a few cases even crossing the threshold, only to be denied by a last-minute intervention. (So many narrow escapes can't help but smack of cinematic exaggeration, but according to DVD commentary by the real Paul Rusesabagina, some of the escapes were even narrower than conveyed in the film.)
Terry George (who cowrote In the Name of the Father and The Boxer) lets Hotel Rwanda unfold with a minimum of directorial interference. The cinematography is workmanlike, the score unmemorable. George knows that he has a story of tremendous depth and power, and he lets no cinematic flourishes distract us from it. He also has, in Don Cheadle, perhaps the most underrated (at least prior to this film) performer working in motion pictures. A character actor of uncommon range and charisma, Cheadle has over the last decade shown himself to be exceptional at playing characters both ineffectual (Boogie Nights) and ferocious (Devil in a Blue Dress, Out of Sight). These talents serve him well in his portrayal of Rusesabagina, an apparently powerless man who turns out to be formidable, a masterful servant. Films in which everyday people accomplish remarkable feats often stumble over the characters' transition from ordinary to extraordinary. But Cheadle delivers a performance without seams, one in which the character's later heroism is merely another facet of his earlier pragmatism. His genius makes Hotel Rwanda not only an important work of politics, but an important work of art.
The Home Movies List:
An Actor's Characters
Mouse Alexander (Devil in a Blue Dress, 1995). Could anyone other than Cheadle have so brilliantly captured the lazy menace of Walter Moseley's most memorable character? (Sorry, Easy.) Cheadle's performance, more than Denzel's, made the lack of sequels a true disappointment.Sylvester Carrier (Rosewood, 1997). Cheadle rehearsed for Hotel Rwanda in this film about the 1920s massacre of a black town in Florida, but it was left to kindly shopkeeper Jon Voigt and Army hero Ving Rhames to save the day.
Buck Swope (Boogie Nights, 1997). Without Cheadle's tender portrayal, the stereo-selling porn cowboy could have been merely pathetic. Instead, it was impossible not to feel for him during his loan application and fear for him during the diner robbery.
Montel Gordon (Traffic, 2000). Another exceptional performance overshadowed by the larger parts (Del Toro, Zeta-Jones, etc.). The moment, after he's feigned rage to plant a bug, when he allows himself a brief smile is one of the best in the film.
Anonymous worker at "Juicy Burgers" (Moving Violations, 1985). Who said a job in fast food never leads anywhere?
This post originally appeared at TNR.com