Sunday, October 5, 2014

Hotel Rwanda (2004)

Director: Terry George                                    Writers: Terry George & Keir Pearson
Film Score: Rupert Gregson-Williams             Cinematography: Robert Fraisse
Starring: Don Cheadle, Nick Nolte, Sophie Okonedo and Fana Mokoena

Hotel Rwanda is the true story of Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager in Kigali, Rwanda who became an unwitting savior of hundreds of people during the Rwandan Genocide in 1994. The event was a shameful episode in international diplomacy as the Western world essentially stood by while a civil war in that country killed over a million men, women and children. This was also another example, as if more were needed, of the disastrous effects of European colonialism in Africa. At one point in the hotel bar, news cameraman Joaquin Phoenix asks a Rwandan reporter what the difference between the Hutu and the Tutsi actually is. He’s told that there is none. The Belgian’s, when they controlled the country, selected blacks who were taller, lighter skinned, and had thinner noses to fill the positions in their government and military and called them Tutsi. The Tutsi naturally abused their power against the majority Hutu population during that time. When the Belgians left, however, they inexplicably attempted to atone for their sins by putting the Hutu in charge. This naturally led to reprisals against the Tutsi and fomented a civil war between populations who had no real genetic or cultural differences.

Don Cheadle plays the manager and scrounger for the top hotel in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, procuring gastronomic delicacies, as well as expensive liquor and Cuban cigars for his guests. One of his suppliers is Hakeem Kae-Kazim, a militant Hutu who wants Cheadle, also a Hutu, to join him in the fight. But Cheadle has no politics and has made a point of making friends with the generals and diplomats who stay at the hotel. One night when his neighbor is beaten and dragged away by the police he can do nothing. As he tells his wife, Sophie Okonedo, all of his credit is being saved for his own family, if they should need it, and he can’t afford to spend it on a neighbor, however nice. One night when he comes home from work, he finds half the neighborhood hiding in his house. He makes room for them, but when soldiers break into his house one morning they threaten to kill them all, including his wife and children who happen to be Tutsi, and he manages to save them by opening the safe at the hotel where he used to work. From then on, his family and friends become trapped in his hotel, along with numerous other refugees, protected only by a thin United Nations peacekeeping force led by Nick Nolte. And when even the U.N. decides to pull out, Cheadle must use all his wits to keep himself and his family alive.

There is a natural inclination to make comparisons of the film to Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, but the fact is that there are hundreds of stories like this in history, of people who refused to allow people to die when they had the power to prevent it, even if only temporarily. Clearly, this is Don Cheadle’s masterpiece and it’s a shame that he hasn’t been able to find another role equally as dynamic. What makes his performance so brilliant is that he navigates the accent with ease and thus becomes utterly believable, something a lot of American actors have difficulty with. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance and would certainly have won had he not been up against Jamie Foxx’s portrayal of Ray Charles in Ray. Other notable performances in the film are Fana Mokoena as the Hutu general who is friendly with Cheadle but can’t be seen to be protecting the Tutsi people that Cheadle is harboring, Cara Seymour as a Red Cross nurse who is trying to save as many Tutsi children as she can, and finally the great Jean Reno as the owner of the hotel who, surprisingly, calls in every favor he has to buy Cheadle more time.

One of writer-director Terry George’s goals in making the film was to expose the fact that blacks don’t really count in the eyes of the West. And in case the entire film didn’t make the point directly enough, he has Nick Nolte as the U.N. general put it to Cheadle as bluntly as possible. When the U.N. forces finally arrive at the hotel, it turns out they are only there to save the whites who are trapped there, leaving the blacks to fend for themselves. Despite the compelling story, however, there are some problems with the film. While it was partly shot in Kigali itself, during the opening ride in the van with Cheadle and Desmond Dube I was actually shocked that the director resorted to green screen effects to show the passing scenery outside. But this cheapness is indicative of the film as a whole. There is a claustrophobia to the production, not only in the hotel but the neighborhood where Cheadle lives as well, that combined with rather pedestrian lighting and lack of color manipulation severely diminishes the impact of the tremendous acting. While the film has been criticized for not opening up to show more of the horror of the genocide, I don’t think that was really necessary. The glimpses the audience does get--Phoenix’s camera footage, the drive along the river, and the Tutsi women caged to be raped--seems to be enough. Despite its disappointing production values, Hotel Rwanda remains an important film and the best example of Don Cheadle’s prodigious talent.

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