In the second quarter of 1994, while much of the world was gearing up to the World Cup to be held in Los Angeles, one of history’s deadliest wholesale slaughters of human beings was taking place in Central Africa.
Following the death of Rwanda’s President Juvenal Habyarimana, an ethnic Hutu whose plane was shot down above the Kigali airport on April 6, 1994, the Hutu powers-that-be decided it was time to eliminate the Tutsi minority who were blamed for the crash. What followed in the next three months was an orgy of hackings and shootings throughout the country of 7.6 million people that left more than 800,000 dead: Mostly Tutsis, but also those Hutus who refused to take part in the madness.
The Anglo-Italian-South African production Hotel Rwanda is set at the time of the genocide. The film’s focus, however, is not the free-for-all murders, but the real-life deeds of one Hutu man, Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager who, through a combination of bribes and diplomacy, saved the lives of 1,200 Tutsis and Hutus who had fled to his Hôtel de Mille Collines (Hotel of a Thousand Hills) while the rest of the world looked away.
Though marred by some Hollywood-inspired melodramatics, a screenplay (by director Terry George and Keir Pearson) that feels at times a tad too didactic, and an absurdly incongruous “happy ending,” Hotel Rwanda is nevertheless a powerful cinematic experience.
The story itself carries enough emotional potency to propel any number of films, but what truly gives this motion picture its heart and soul is the superb performance by American actor Don Cheadle as the Rwandan hotel manager, who – ably assisted by British actress Sophie Okonedo as his Tutsi wife – comes across not as a movie hero but as a frightened human being struggling to stay afloat in an ocean of human evil.
HOTEL RWANDA (2004). Dir.: Terry George. Cast: Don Cheadle, Sophie Okonedo, Nick Nolte, Joaquin Phoenix, Desmond Dube, Neil McCarthy, Jean Reno. Scr.: Keir Pearson and Terry George.
Sophie Okonedo and Don Cheadle Hotel Rwanda image: United Artists / Lionsgate / MGM.