Not Just an African Story

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Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle) is a smooth and accommodating guy. Neat and trim in his habitual jacket and tie, he's a black man managing a luxury hotel in Kigali, Rwanda, a decade ago, making friends and doing favors across racial and national boundaries. He knows when an obsequious word or a proffered bottle of single-malt Scotch will do him the most good with corrupt local officialdom. And he is doing his best to ignore the rising tensions between his country's ruling Hutu tribe (of which he is a member) and the rebellious Tutsi.

Then, however, tension turns into genocide. And Rusesabagina turns from glorified houseboy into antiheroic hero. His hotel can offer hundreds of terrified Tutsi food, beds and the protection of a thin, blue-helmeted line of U.N. peacekeepers, commanded by Colonel Oliver (Nick Nolte). The big question is, Can the volatile local militia, eager to stamp out "cockroaches" (its name for the Tutsi), be kept at bay?

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Jan. 17, 2004

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Hotel Rwanda tells Rusesabagina's story with admirable objectivity, possibly because the real-life character said he wouldn't have had it any other way. He turned down several offers to participate in documentaries and cable movies because he felt they wouldn't find a large enough audience. (This year being the 10th anniversary of the massacre, there are already several documentaries on the subject on the festival circuit.) The genial hotel manager of the past is no more. Now owner of a trucking concern and living in Belgium, Rusesabagina says the horrors he witnessed in Rwanda "made me a different man. I used to be friendly, to trust people, to trust in my friends, but that has changed."

One thing about him, however, has not varied: his fierce love for his wife, who is a Tutsi, and their children. It is, the film makes clear, the model for the protective passion he extended to the 1,268 "guests" who crammed into his Belgian-owned hotel, the Mille Collines. His transformation is marvelously captured by Cheadle. As you wonder whether Rusesabagina's slippery maneuverability is sufficient to master the bloodlust rising around him, you can see the fear behind his eyes even while marveling at his improvisational adaptability. He takes the crises as they come, handles them as best he can and moves on to the next.

He is, in short, a very busy fellow, and that may be his salvation. Guns are placed at his head. And sometimes his suppressed outrage bursts forth in angry confrontations. But mostly he is desperately trying to keep his cool and doesn't have time to grasp the enormity of a situation in which, finally, close to a million people are slaughtered. It is only toward the end of the film that he realizes the full horror of his situation. As he returns through a dense fog with a truckload of food, his vehicle suddenly starts to bounce alarmingly. He thinks perhaps he has gone off the road. But, in fact, the truck is running over bodies — hundreds of murdered men, women and children.

By this time it will have occurred to the viewer that what the film is dealing with is a sort of equatorial Oskar Schindler, an ordinarily selfish, not particularly idealistic human being who, under the impress of unimaginable events, finds within himself qualities of compassion neither he nor anyone else particularly guessed he had. One suspects that such men find in terrible situations an irresistible challenge not to their morality but to their amorality, their ability to manipulate people who, having lost their reason, can be mastered by those who are fully in charge of their faculties and thus in charge of the deadly game in which they are caught up. Hotel Rwandadoes not make that point overtly. Nor does it really make any huge claims for Rusesabagina. It implicitly acknowledges that like Schindler, he saved only a few among many.

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