The most compelling scene in Hotel Rwanda comes when Hutu House Manger Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle) strips off his designer shirt and silk tie in disgust at the carnage he has, literally, run in to, but also in the realization that he has succumbed to the “game” of cow-towing to his Belgian employers, his country’s generals, and the hotel’s supplier, George Rutagunda (Hakeem Kae-Kazin) rebel Interahamwe leader and Tutsi exterminator extraordinaire. So he rips off the symbols of Western hedonism and cries for himself and his people. Dramatic stuff, yet it’s the first time we’ve seen him without an undershirt, giving his moment of truth a slightly false ring – expediency overpowering reality once again.
When the violence first erupts, Rusesabagina is in his comfortable middle-class home and, with his family huddled around, peers across the street where a neighbor is savagely beaten. He states aloud that there is “nothing I can do” and that he would only “act” if a member of his family was under attack. Essentially, this is the same argument used by the European governments as they rescued their own, leaving the “neighbors” to fend for themselves.
As Rusesabagina then begins his journey, protecting the weak and the scorned in a hotel built for the rich and pampered, the writers (Keir Pearson and Terry Jones) inadvertently leave us to speculate on his motivation: Love for fellow human beings? Or guilt from his initial cowardice. All of which combines to demonstrate the universality of many of the undercurrents in such apologist tomes as Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Later, even as his near-hopeless situation (his bribery cupboard is bare so the army’s protection of this “traitor,” who shelters Tutsi “cockroaches,” – including his wife and dozens of orphans), finally gives him the strength to order his coddled general to help: “Who will speak on your behalf at the war crimes trials if I am dead?” Sadly, the intensity is weakened again as the continuity team let Rusesabagina’s whiskers grow at the equivalent rate of three inches per hour.
These are just two examples of how the “devil in the detail” prevents director Terry George’s recounting of a true-to-life experience from delivering a more searing condemnation of those who, through murderous action or willful blindness, allowed the slaughter and displacement of many hundreds of thousands in 1994.
Trying to keep the peace is the beleaguered UN contingent headed by its Canadian Commander Colonel Oliver (Nick Nolte, whose lurking rage “We have orders not to shoot” and predilection for single-malt Scotch come across convincingly even as the rebels mockingly toss him a fallen comrade’s bloodied blue helmet). Oliver, unwittingly serves as a mouthpiece for James Baldwin’s view of Africa (Notes of a Native Son) when he blurts out to the belief-shaken Rusesabagina “You’re not even a n****r – you’re African. They’re (European intervention troops) not going to stay!”
As Tatiana, (Rusesabagina’s Tutsi wife), Sophie Okonedo excels in portraying her love for children be they her own, her brother’s or the countless orphans (whose singing voices are effectively slipped into the soundscape and whose innocent dance around the hotel’s pool – and last source of water – are telling reinforcements to this disturbing depiction of humanity at its worst).
Throughout the film, much of the world’s opinion “How many acts of genocide dies it take to make genocide?” is juxtaposed with Hutu Power’s call to exterminate the “cockroaches” via the speakers of all manner of ever-ready radios. However, these faceless pronouncements on both “sides” of the atrocities gradually lose their effectiveness with every reappearance: more show, less tell, please.
By the film’s end, where the remnants of the former lackey Rusesabagina and his hundreds of “guests” are safely behind the front, there is a level of closure that is broken only by the credits when we realize that the Rusesabaginas have abandoned their continent for Belgium. The lure of the West, presumably, still too strong for those who once stood up to their “liberators.”
And in 2004, with Darfur burning and Congo smouldering, has anything really changed?