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January 11, 2005

Thanks to Cheadle, Hotel Rwanda worth visiting

Based on a true story, Hotel Rwanda—director Terry George's heartbreaking yet uplifting masterpiece—is the best film of 2004. The film centers on the 1994 Rwandan genocide, when nearly one million members of the Tutsi tribe and the Rwandan Prime Minister were slaughtered by their Hutu brethren over a three-month period and the entire world ignored the conflict. Aided by Paul Rusesabagina (played by the talented Don Cheadle, in a powerful, embodied performance), 1,268 Tutsi lives were saved. An unlikely hero, Rusesabagina was the appointed manager of Kigali, Rwanda's luxury Hotel Mille Collines.

The Belgians used the Tutsis to control the country, trivially distinguishing them from the Hutu by differences in their height and nose length. After departing, the Belgians surprisingly left power to the Hutu tribe, thus giving rise to the conflict.

Don Cheadle, in an Oscar-worthy performance rivaling Jamie Foxx's portrayal of Ray Charles in Ray, captures a man who is a caretaker in every sense of the word, a man who knows his job and does it perfectly. He is called "an oasis in the desert" by one of his guests. Indeed, we soon learn the truth of that statement.

Paul is Hutu, but his wife Tatiana (played by Sophie Okenedo, in a quietly sincere, emotional, Oscar-worthy performance) is Tutsi. In the beginning Paul thinks only of his own family and their survival. He states, "Family is the only thing that matters"—but by the end we witness his complete transformation into a man willing to risk his own life in order to protect as many people as possible.

In one early scene, Paul is nearly forced to shoot his wife to prove he is not a traitor. Cheadle handles the situation with incredible control, thus heightening the tension. Soon after, he is tested once more when orphan children and other Tutsi refugees are brought to the hotel. Paul is operating at capacity. Yet he maintains the honor and prestige of the hotel, making sure his staff is still working and that each guest is satisfied with the service.

Paul has the power to motivate the refugees, to uplift them. The film is consistent with balancing the startling images that, despite the PG-13 rating, are still rather extraordinary, yet never exploitative. Also effective are the hopeful, sometimes funny moments. Hotel Rwanda is a film that meets its challenges and gives us so much more.

Perhaps the most moving moment of the film comes when Paul is driving with an unruly hotel worker, Gregoire (played with perfect arrogance by Tony Kgoroge). They are taking a terribly bumpy road back to the hotel after getting food for the refugees (at extravagant cost). They discover that the bumpy ride, however, is a result of the hundreds, perhaps thousands of dead bodies lying in the street. The intensely painful experience forces Paul to hold back his vomit. It is a scene that is representative of genocide in general and demonstrates the need to pay closer attention to the conflicts that exist in our world.

Nick Nolte, in a career comeback performance, plays a U.N. officer who is assigned to guard the premises of the hotel. At one point, in the most powerful line of the film, he says to Paul, "You should spit in my face. They [the West] think you're dirt, you're dumb, you're worthless. You could own this freakin' hotel, except for one thing. You're black. You're not even a nigger, you're an African. [The European International Group is] not gonna stay, Paul. They're not gonna stop this."

Joaquin Phoenix, as a reporter staying at the hotel, says in response to Paul's question, "How can they not intervene when they witness such atrocities?" Then he answers his own question: "I think if people see this footage, they'll say, ‘Oh my God, that's horrible,' and then go on eating their dinner."

Sure enough, shortly after, Paul witnesses the exit of the world forces. It is a scene that is heartrending but never hopeless.

Throughout the film, Paul remains calmer than seems humanly possible. But in a late scene where he is putting on his tie, he can no longer bear the pressure and pain that he feels. He completely breaks down alone in a controlled silence. We witness the damage of such a brave soul. It is so real and so powerful that I felt like his weight was upon my shoulders as well. Cheadle is superb.

But the film is not full of heartbreaking images and scenes filled with sadness. The ending is one of the most appropriate endings I have seen for a film like this in such a long time. It is beautiful, uplifting, motivating, sad, painful, and so much more.

It seems as though my entire review is in praise of this film. That is simply because it is brilliant. It does everything that it can to make the world listen. This is important now more than ever. There is a crisis at this moment in Sudan that is turning out to be similar to the Rwandan genocide. There has not been much media coverage. This film is here to teach the world to pay attention, to open up our hearts and our minds.

Not since Steven Spielberg's The Color Purple (with all of its flaws) have I felt so emotionally and physically drained—and at the same time, so moved and encouraged.

The tagline for Hotel Rwanda reads, "When the world closed its eyes, he opened his arms." Watching the film, for the first time, I completely believed in heroes.