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.