“Hotel Rwanda” is the true story of Paul Rusesabagina who ran a hotel in Rwanda during the Rwandan Genocide. It was directed by Terry George (“A Bright Shining Lie”) who also co-wrote the screenplay. The movie was shot in Rwanda and South Africa. It was critically acclaimed and was nominated for three Academy Awards including Best Original Screenplay. George’s goal was to bring the events of the genocide to Western audiences to shame them.
The movie is set in 1994. Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle) runs a hotel. He is a Hutu and his wife is a Tutsi. This is not an issue as Paul is not interested in politics. All he cares about is running his hotel efficiently. His family life is idyllic, but that is about to change. Tensions between the majority Hutus and the minority Tutsi’s are heating up and explode when the Hutu President is assassinated and its blamed on the Tutsis. This results in the government giving free rein to the Interahamwe militia to attack Tutsi civilians. The United Nations peacekeeping force is unable to stop the massacre. Paul evacuates his family to the hotel and soon other refugees begin arriving. At one point the UN rides to the rescue – to rescue the Europeans staying at the hotel. Sorry, Africans. Paul (who has a knack for wheeling and dealing) has to really up his game to keep the militia forces out of the hotel grounds.
“Hotel Rwanda” is an important film. Although it came along too late to stop the genocide, it might prevent the next one. The Rwanda Genocide was underreported in the Western media and what news coverage there was did not result in public pressure on governments to intervene. The movie is clearly an indictment of this. It personalizes the event through the actions of Rusesabagina, but it also does a great job as a tutorial on the historical massacre. Unfortunately, much of the audience in America was learning about the Rwanda Genocide for the first time. The movie is not meant simply as a guilt trip although that theme is hammered. The West and the UN are depicted as spineless. It also tackles the political corruption typical in African countries and the racial tensions between ethnic groups within them. I have to admit that I did feel ashamed after watching it, but I also wondered if it would have been a good idea to be stuck between crazy people trying to kill each other.
The movie is very well made. The acting is stellar, especially by the always reliable Cheadle. He was nominated for Best Actor. He is ably matched by Sophie Okonedo as his wife. She was nominated for Best Supporting Actress. There is a despicable staff member played by Tony Kgoroge. Nick Nolte brings his crusty persona to that of UN Colonel Oliver. There is an appropriately depressing score. What keeps the movie from being great is it is a bit cliché at times. Rusesabagina reminds a lot of Schindler. The hotel dynamics are similar to “The Killing Fields”. Because the movie is PG-13, it is unable to show the true horrors of the massacre. That was an understandable decision by George considering he was trying to reach a bigger audience.
How accurate is the movie? It is hard for me to say. The movie has become controversial over the years. The Rwandan government and some people in the hotel have questioned Rusesabagina’s account. The film totally relies on his recollections and he was a technical adviser. It is possible that he lied. Some claim that he extorted from his “guests”, charged them for food provided by relief agencies, and threatened to turn over anyone who stood up to him. In this case, the truth is probably not somewhere in between, but I am not prepared to tell you which side is wrong. I am prepared to say that the Nolte character is bull shit. Oliver was based on Gen. Romeo Dellaire, who although he regrets not being able to do more, still sincerely helped as much as he could. But that does not fit Hollywood’s stereotype.
Is “Hotel Rwanda” going to make my 100 Best War Movies? I think not. It is a very good movie and it informs on a subject that needed a major motion picture. But since I cannot definitively confirm that its hero was not a villain, I can’t justify putting it on a list where historical accuracy is going to be important.
GRADE = B+