The 50 Greatest Dramas: #47: Hotel Rwanda (2004)

Hotel Rwanda

A hotel manager struggles to save 1,200 refugees during the Rwandan genocide in this drama starring Don Cheadle

Hotel Rwanda is based on the real-life story of African hotelier Paul Rusesabagina, a Hutu whose compassion, humanity and quick thinking allowed him to save 1,200 Tutsi refugees from being slaughtered during the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

A Schindler’s List for the Third World, Terry George’s account of that slaughter - in which around one million Tutsis were killed by the Hutu majority over the course of 100 days while the West turned a blind eye - works best as a powerful indictment of our own culpability.

Repeatedly emphasising the failure of the West to send an intervention force into the troubled country, Hotel Rwanda asks probing questions about the lack of a coalition of the willing - and comes to damning conclusions about the First World’s racist foreign policy decisions. As Nick Nolte’s exasperated and impotent UN officer Colonel Oliver growls helplessly at Rusesabagina, “You’re not black. You’re not even a nigger. You’re African”. Elsewhere, George’s film is strictly business as usual - a hand-wringing series of liberal platitudes that telescopes gruesome historical reality into sanitised, popcorn-friendly viewing. Insulating us from the horror of genocide, Hotel Rwanda pushes the slaughter off-screen and focuses instead on the hotel itself where Paul desperately tries to keep his Tutsi charges safe through a series of bribes, bartering and the liberal distribution of free beer to the Hutu troops.

Hotel Rwanda

In fairness, there are powerful moments - a nighttime excursion along a misty, strangely bumpy back country road ends with Paul realising that he’s bouncing over hundreds of dead bodies; a UN convoy carrying refugees is forced into a stand off with machete-wielding thugs as Oliver and a handful of Belgian troops fight to keep their human cargo alive.

In the lead roles, Cheadle and British actress Sophie Okonedo acquit themselves well - panic-stricken faces contorting in the gathering hysteria. Whether they deserve quite as much praise as has been heaped on them is debatable, but then there’s a certain value in over-praising Hotel Rwanda since to do so is to tacitly acknowledge our guilt and then seal it away in the past. The fact that Paul is styled in very American terms as a sharp, go-getting, self-made (business) man, only makes his heroism more appealing to the target US audience. This is cathartic cinema - watch it, feel bad, then go home and wait for the sequel, ‘Hotel Sudan’.

 

Verdict
Well-intentioned and worthy, this account of the Rwandan genocide swaps atrocities for melodrama. Its accusation about the West’s failure to intervene works well.

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