Don Cheadle as Paul Rusesabagina
Sophie Okonedo as Tatiana
Nick Nolte as Colonel Oliver
Desmond Dube as Dube
Antonio David Lyons as Thomas
Tony Kgoroge as Gregoire
Fana Mokoena as Hutu General
David O’Hara as David
Joaquin Phoenix as Jack
Cara Seymour as Pat Archer
Few Americans know about the situation in Rwanda that led to the systematic slaughter of millions of people in 1993. To understand the situation, you have to be familiar with the country’s history after Belgium created racial and civil unrest between the country’s two tribes, the Tutsis and the Hutus, by wrestling power from one and giving it to the other. The nature of the conflict is dictated by an eerie broadcast from the hate-filled Hutu radio station RTLM, which preaches hatred against the Tutsi “cockroaches,” and when the Hutu prime minister is murdered, it drives the Hutu forces into a murderous frenzy, brutally killing all Tutsis on sight, even women and kids. It’s a scary commentary on the power of broadcasting and the media, as well as a terrific storytelling device, but as an outsider, it’s hard to tell the difference between the tribes and even harder to imagine that a country could be divided by something as small as the width of someone’s nose. It’s even more shocking to think that neither the US nor the UN were able to do anything about the situation until it was far too late.
In this tense environment, we’re introduced to our protagonist Paul Rusesabagina, the Hutu manager of the high class Hotel Mille Collines, a regular bastion for visiting Europeans. As the tension escalates around him, he is driven to go far above and beyond the need to protect his own family, saving hundreds of strangers, because he knows it’s the right thing for him to do. He does this by using all of his connections in the military and the Belgian hotel owners to convince the UN to intervene in the situation. While all sorts of horrors are going on around them, his more immediate problem is a traitorous employee unhappy with his decision to bring in the Tutsi refugees, showing that not all problems are outside his hotel refuge.
There may not be a better actor to bring Rusesabagina to life than Don Cheadle. His everyman nature lends to him the ability to have viewers immediately empathize with him, creating the perfect touchstone to the situation, as his reaction to the horrors often mirrors our own. It takes a little time to get used the thick accent, but one can’t help but admire and respect how far he’ll go to save human life, making him a true leader and hero. Just as one is getting used to the futility in Paul’s situation, more tragedies are piled on, and it’s heartbreaking to watch him try to keep his head together amidst the craziness. When it all finally gets to be too much for even him to handle, he breaks down in a scene that will guarantee Cheadle his much-deserved Oscar nomination.
This grim environment creates a backdrop for the wonderful love shared between Paul and his wife Tatiana, played by Dirty Pretty Things‘ Sophie Okonedo. It’s a Romeo and Juliet marriage that ignores the fact that they’re from different tribes. Following the adage about there being a woman behind every great man, Okonedo brings out some of Cheadle’s most dramatic moments with an equally impressive performance as Tatiana tries to convince him to not get involved with others and to save himself. Much of the movie’s second half deals with their desperate search for two nieces who have gone missing after the Hutu massacre.
The real stars of their supporting cast are the terrific unknown African actors brought in to add some realism, although there are a few familiar faces. Joaquin Phoenix and Cara Seymour play smaller parts as a field reporter and a Red Cross worker, acting as the outsiders to help viewers understand what is going on, but the oddest casting choice is Nick Nolte as the UN Colonel. Even if his gruff delivery makes him credible as a military man, his weak performance drags some of his scenes down to the level of TV movie.
While Hotel Rwanda is not a particularly flashy movie being driven solely by the story, the script and the characters, Terry George builds the whole thing to a huge climactic face-off on a cinematic par with bits of Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down. Like 2002’s No Man’s Land, this powerful film deals with important social and political issues that are far too easy to ignore, but it’s an important lesson in tolerance as well as getting involved when no one else will. Watching Paul Rusesabagina turn into a hero on the par with Nelson Mandela makes Hotel Rwanda as mandatory to watch as Schindler’s List.