Each of us is human and has value, but we are not equally valuable—our resources (knowledge, skills, talents, and monies), and relationships to others, determine the extent of our value. Sometimes we feel inferior because we are. The work of people such as Plato and Shakespeare is not important because they are Greek or English but because of how they illuminate the human condition, an illumination not limited by language, national borders, or time. The respect we sometimes have for physical strength is a holdover from earlier times, when a man’s survival or laboring power depended on it, especially if he was a servant; but physical strength is less important in the modern world, in which much of the work to be done is the work of mind or machines (and physical strength has now merely a symbolic or erotic force)—and yet, thoughts and feelings are respected most when they can be made into a commodity and sold, as in books or films. Hotel Rwanda and William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice are two films that look at the trouble that can come from social differences that are believed to be essential; and they feature good performances by their leading actors (Don Cheadle in the first, Al Pacino in the second). “When one is able to follow an actor in continuity, one is leading him, in spite of himself but thanks to him, towards public confession,” said film director Jean Renoir in conversation years ago with Jean-Luc Godard (Godard on Godard, DaCapo, New York, 1986; 145).
The actor Don Cheadle has appeared in Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), Rosewood (1997), Boogie Nights (1997), Bulworth (1998), Out of Sight (1998), The Rat Pack (1998), A Lesson Before Dying (1999), Mission to Mars (2000), Traffic (2000), Swordfish (2001), The United States of Leland (2003), and Hotel Rwanda (2004). Cheadle was a loyal but dangerously (and comically) crazy friend to Denzel Washington in Devil, a country-music loving porn star in Boogie Nights, a criminal with radical thoughts in Bulworth, and a teacher of a young man he initially was not sure was worth his time in Lesson Before Dying. What Cheadle, intelligent, slim, dark, funny, brings to his characters is a sense of authenticity. Don Cheadle, born in Kansas City in 1964, graduated from the East High School in Denver, Colorado, and received a fine arts baccalaureate degree from the California Institute of the Arts, where he studied theater. By the mid-1980s, he was in films, appearing in the American Film Institute’s thesis film Punk (1986) by Carl Franklin, who would later direct Devil in a Blue Dress, One False Move (1992), One True Thing (1998), and Out of Time (2003). Cheadle appeared in Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead in 1995, and ten years later could be seen co-starring with Sean Penn in The Assassination of Richard Nixon (it opened in December 2004). Don Cheadle, who has said that he would like to make a movie focusing on Miles Davis or jazz, is currently preparing his film-directing debut, Tishomingo Blues, based on an Elmore Leonard novel. In Hotel Rwanda, Don Cheadle plays a luxury hotel manager in 1994 Rwanda, Paul Rusesabagina, a Hutu married to a Tutsi, Tatiana (acted by Sophie Okonedo, who appeared in Dirty Pretty Things), at a time when Hutus begin killing Tutsis. The Belgians dominating Rwanda years before used a divide-and-conquer strategy, and made the minority Tutsis allies while the Belgians ruled; and when the Belgians left Rwanda they gave power to the majority Hutus, a fact that seems odd until one learns that the Hutu dethroned the ruling king, a Tutsi, in 1959, three years before the Belgians officially relinquished control in 1962. There was civil unrest for decades; and when the Rwandan president, a Hutu, was killed in a plane crash, the Tutsis were blamed and massacred. The hotel manager allowed Tutsi refugees in the hotel, and despite the great massacre he managed to save more than one thousand of them. About three-hundred-thousand Tutsis were killed in April 1994, and almost a million were killed in a little over three months, by July 1994, when the killing stopped (and stopped thanks to a Tutsi-led military group, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, that invaded Kigali, Rwanda, from Uganda, where they lived in exile). Someone in the film, a camera-man played by Joaquin Phoenix, seeing a Hutu woman and Tutsi woman together, says he cannot tell the difference between the two, that they could be twins. While there is some resemblance between the women, there are also differences (a womanizer such as the cameraman might not notice); and the Tutsis were known for height and lighter complexions, while the Hutus, the larger population, were thought to be often darker and stocky. (During a second viewing of the film, I actually thought that the woman identified as Tutsi looked like what I expected a Hutu to look like and vice versa. After the film was over, a blonde woman sitting behind me said she did not understand the conflict as she couldn’t tell the difference between the two peoples, as if discernible differences would have justified slaughter, as if biology is the same as culture or politics.) In Rwanda, as in much of Africa, differences, real and imagined, misunderstood as essences, were emphasized or obscured, by both Europeans and Africans, for various reasons. I do not believe in essences; I believe in change, choice, complexity, consciousness, and correction, though much of the world seems to prefer that character and existence be defined by certain common categories, such as age, appearances, attitude, class, gender, race, religion, and politics. Whether what one believes is substantiated by evidence and logic—and can be called then a fact or truth—is another matter; and even then, it may be difficult to know what has actually moved a man or woman to act. Why does one man kill; and another attempt to save a life?
Paul Rusesabagina attempts to maintain not only an air of civility, decency, efficiency, and professionalism, but their practice, while all about him are losing their heads, figuratively and literally. I think that the professionalism of the hotel manager hero—cordial, polite, subservient—may be especially amenable to westerners, who fear and disapprove of the irreconcilable rage that often comes from intolerable conditions. However, it is odd to me that this hero never articulates or utilizes his own political interpretation of African history and how the (then) current events fit within that history; nor does he consider violence—the possibility of arming with whatever tools (knives, hoes, hammers) are in the kitchen or gardening shed. There would be not enough tools to defeat an army but there might be enough to save a few more lives; and yet it is also true that the attempt at such defense might have antagonized the killers further. Paul Rusesabagina experiences a crisis when he is told by the United Nations’ peacekeeper (Nick Nolte) that he and his fellow citizens are seen as having even less value than American niggers, and Rusesabagina realizes that the things he believed in—culture, style, and the competence and cordiality of his professionalism—are meaningless to affect his current state: they have not rendered him more valuable in western eyes. (Someone in the film will say later that the Africans are not worth a single vote to the Americans, British, or French. “We sent many faxes to Bill Clinton himself at the White House,” Paul Rusesabagina is quoted as saying in Philip Gourevitch’s book We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families: Stories from Rwanda, Farrar, Straus, New York, 1998; 132.) Paul and the other Africans are to be sacrificed. I imagine that many black men have undergone this same crisis (a disillusionment: personal pursuits have not invalidated social caste—what, then, to think, feel, and do?). A more personal crisis occurs when Paul decides to let his wife and children go ahead of him in a United Nations convoy, while he plans to stay in the hotel with the Tutsis he hopes to continue protecting. The convoy is overtaken and turned back; and his wife is angry with him, as he had promised never to leave her. That he managed to help one-thousand, two-hundred and sixty-eight people, and eventually move himself and his family to Belgium are unpredictable and rare.
Hotel Rwanda begins with a report about United States president Clinton’s concern for Sarajevo, and a Hutu radio announcer describing why he hates Tutsis (he says they collaborated with the colonizing Belgians and stole land) and ominously telling his listeners to “watch your neighbors.” Paul Rusesabagina is the hotel manager of the Milles Collines hotel (pronounced: me co-leen); and he goes to a Kigali airport to retrieve Cuban cigars, which he often uses as gifts to guests and business associates—he gives one to a vendor, who invites him to a Hutu power rally. “It’s time for you to join your people,” the vendor tells Paul. A large box of machetes falls open and the vendor tells Paul he got them for ten cents each from China, but will sell them for more. Paul’s assistant Dube (actor Desmond Dube) talks about a radio program he heard encouraging murder of the Tutsi, another indication that the killing the film will detail is no surprise. Linda Melvern’s Conspiracy to Murder: The Rwandan Genocide, published by Verso, London and New York, in 2004, recounts the United Nation’s representative Major-General Romeo Dallaire’s rejected proposals to conduct a raid on a weapons cache, to establish a radio station in the country, and to do more to actively protect Rwandan citizens. Embroiled in Sarajevo and Somalia, the United Nations, and specifically the United States, did not want to take on a new burden, and refused to endorse Dallaire’s recommendations before or after the massacre began.
Paul Rusesabagina has trouble with another of his employees, Gregoire (Tony Kgoroge), whose appearance in the film will be villainous; lazy and contemptuous of others but attractive to women, he will be shown as sympathetic to the killers, then as a collaborator; and that may be because the film required someone—other than a radio announcer, major weapons supplier, or general (men distinguished by prominent public roles)—to embody the banality of evil. More than one-hundred-thousand people would be arrested for participation in genocide, and it’s helpful that most of the murderous people we see, such as Gregoire, are either physically handsome or likable: they are not made to look like devils in appearance or mannerisms—they are human beings, not monsters, doing wrong.
The hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina’s home life is the center of his concerns, and at one point he says that he hopes the favors he does others will benefit his family one day if they need help. He lives in a nice house in a modest neighborhood with his wife, son, and two daughters. He is unwilling to get involved when a neighbor is beaten. After the Rwandan president, Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, signs a domestic peace treaty, which some Hutus consider a betrayal, there is a United Nations event at Paul’s hotel (Hutu military men toast the president—“may he find peace,” which sounds more like a death wish, but when the president’s plane is shot down, the Tutsis are blamed). Paul’s brother-in-law tells him that he has been told that the Tutsis will be murdered and “cut the tall trees” is code for kill the Tutsis, but Paul doesn’t believe what the man fears will happen. Paul later drives home and cannot get anything on the radio (we hear a strange murmuring—some of which sounds like chants of kill, kill), and as he drives we see burning houses and trucks of soldiers going by. Paul’s worried neighbors have gathered at his house; and his wife Tatiana tells him that he is the only Hutu his neighbors trust. His son, worried about a friend, goes next door and is covered in blood, which his parents see and become hysterical over until they realize it’s not his blood (the boy, in shock, does not speak). The radio message is sounded: cut the tall trees, and soldiers arrive at Paul’s house. They want his help to enter Hotel Diplomates, pronounced Diplomat, where he used to work, and it is his wife who suggests the family go with him in the Milles Collines hotel van (and she includes her various neighbors as part of the family; and they all will take staff rooms in the hotel). We see guns and machetes held by ordinary people on the street; and the killers are jubilant.
Later Paul, after being hit by one of the soldiers, is left in charge of the hotel where he works, but he has to get a letter from the hotel’s parent company in Belgium to get his black colleagues to consider him their boss. While the hotel becomes a refuge, the United Nations colonel (Nolte) says that his men are peacekeepers, not peacemakers; and the United Nations will begin to pull out once some of the force are killed protecting the lady prime minister. There is a scene in which white westerners are evacuated, some leaving in relief, some with hesitation, and some in shame, leaving behind the Africans, a scene that says a great deal. Paul’s brother-in-law and sister-in-law are missing and presumed dead; and their girls, Paul’s nieces, are with an old lady, beyond the walls of the hotel (Paul and his wife Tatiana much later will find and adopt the girls as their own. We are not told if Paul has parents or siblings). When Paul, dismayed by the betrayal of the west, tells his wife that he has been a fool, his wife Tatiana says, “You’re no fool—I know who you are,” and it is one of several poignant moments between them, as are his preparing rooftop candlelit refreshments for just the two of them, and his reassuring her at various times despite his doubt. She, at one point, suggests that he, a Hutu, take their children and go; and that’s when he says he’ll never leave her. His professional contacts pay off when he gets the hotel’s Belgium management to call the French suppliers of the Rwandan army’s weapons to postpone an execution of the hotel’s inhabitants; and then Paul encourages the hotel’s refugees to call their international contacts and shame them into helping, which yields some exit visas. Paul also keeps the killers out of the hotel with bribes and disinformation. “Your white friends have abandoned you,” a Rwandan general, far from surprised or disturbed, says to Paul, the kind of thing many blacks with white friends hear sooner or later (betrayals do occur; and people who do not believe in cross-cultural contact like to note that). When Paul asks the machete-supplying vendor about the elimination of the Tutsis, “You don’t believe that you can kill them all, do you?” He is answered, “Why not?” Paul and Gregoire leave the supplier’s shop with food for the hotel, drive through fog, and find the road very bumpy and learn it’s bumpy as it’s full of dead bodies, a gruesome, nauseating site, hellish (and in the distance I saw a landscape of trees, rocks, and waterfall—heavenly; and the contrast was suggestive. Who transforms the earth into hell?). When Dube asks why people do such things, Paul answers, “Hatred, insanity, I don’t know.”
It would be interesting to know more about the particular grudges the Hutus bore; and to know what mundane deprivations, fears, and rages the Hutus had that would require a scapegoat. (The Hutu executioners first began by killing well-established Tutsi political and business people, and also moderate Hutu government officials.) I’m somewhat wary about citing Philip Gourevitch’s We wish to inform you or Linda Melvern’s Conspiracy to Murder, as I did not come to those books until after I had seen Hotel Rwanda twice and had composed more than two-thirds of this essay, nor have I read all of either book. I, then, was surprised to see what I wanted to consider my own thoughts already there in Gourevitch, in his sense of how acceptable many Rwandans found ethnic prejudice, and the logic of genocide. The Rwandan situation would be of interest to anyone interested in civilization and its limits; and it might be of special concern to an Irish man (Terry George, the film’s director), a Jew (Gourevitch), a woman (Melvern), or an African-American (me), individuals who recognize situations in which myth and power are turned against a people. Such common recognitions are made with consciousness of history and circumstance, and after social observation and personal experience, not as the result of biology. If I were to deny Gourevitch, would I have to deny as well the more distant echoes of others that might occur in my work, whether I know their work well or slightly—Heracleitus, Socrates, Diogenes of Sinope, Marcus Aurelius, William of Occam, Hobbes, Locke, Voltaire, Thomas Paine, John Stuart Mill, Charles Peirce, William James, John Dewey, Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche? Part of what it means to be human is to have a shared patrimony, and part of what it means to be civilized is to know it: and the Rwandans had a shared history but forgot it. Gourevitch writes that it’s believed the Hutu people came from the south and west of Africa and the Tutsi came from the north and east to Rwanda after the Twa, a small group of cave-dwellers, had already settled the land; and it’s known that the Hutus and Tutsis shared language and religion and married each other and lived together—they shared place, power, and culture. The two groups were thought distinct however in light of their principal methods of sustenance—the Hutu maintained agriculture and the Tutsis herded cows. (Germany colonized Rwanda in 1885, and Tutsi leaders betrayed a popular uprising in 1911. Belgian fighters defeated Germany’s in Rwanda, taking over in 1916, according to Melvern’s book.) Belgian racism—finding the Tutsis more European looking, and a smaller group that could be used as a tool for their rule—encouraged division. The Biblical curse of Ham—the son who saw his father naked, talked of it, and was cursed to serve his brothers—was invoked as a justification for disinheriting the Hutus. When the Hutus came to power, the Tutsis were vilified and discriminated against in education and work—to prevent a return of Tutsis to power; and Hutus who married Tutsis were thought of as traitors. “If parents had really made their children understand that Tutsi have the same flesh as them and that their blood is the same as them, they wouldn’t have dared to kill their fellow men in such a cruel manner” (192), said Dismas Mutezintare Gisimba, a Kigali Hutu man who helped four-hundred children and adults in a Nyamirambo orphanage survive the massacre, quoted in Linda Melvern’s Conspiracy to Murder (and before that, quoted in a book, produced by the organization African Rights, of nearly three-hundred pages, Rwanda: Tribute to Courage, which documents people who acted honorably). One of the startling things in the film is how casually people talk to Paul Rusesabagina about the likelihood that they will kill or spare Paul’s Tutsi wife.
Don Cheadle’s Paul Rusesabagina is a believable hero. After falling into a pile of corpses on his trip back from getting food supplies, Paul returns to the Milles Collines hotel, showers, changes clothes, and has trouble putting on a necktie—the last touch in his professional appearance—and he weeps. It is a small but significant revelation: the fragility he reveals seems without age, gender, or race; his fragility seems pure. Paul, at the end of the film, locks up the hotel and joins all the refugees in a United Nations convoy to a refugee camp, from which buses will take them across the Rwandan border. One of his daughters asks him where they are going and he says, “Some place safe.” Those are the hopeful words of a loving father. (Cheadle, who met the real Paul, described him in the 2004 year-end issue of New York’s Time Out magazine as humble and proud, with a gregarious love of life.) I am tempted to consider the film great on the basis of the film’s significant subject and Cheadle’s performance. I appreciated certain details: Dube, early in the film, looks at Paul to see if they are both seeing the same thing, the trouble to come; children dance and run together at the Milles Collines hotel, just being children; distant night-time explosions occur while Paul and his wife, on the hotel’s rooftop, try to have an intimate moment; and Paul, going to get food supplies, sees a pen of half-naked girls and women, who are described to him as prostitutes (about two-hundred-and-fifty-thousand females were raped in Rwanda at the time). There were other details I questioned—when Paul first goes in to look at the small orphan children in their room, they are seated quietly around the room (I question behavior); and when the hotel is evacuated of whites there is rain and I could see sunshine beyond the rain (I question technique); and there’s a uniformity of conversation in the film—no one seems to talk about anything that doesn’t relate to the film’s themes (I question—what? realism? richness of the life portrayed?). Yet, I think it’s a very good film. I was surprised, after the second time I saw the film, to observe an East Indian man attempting to explain to a black woman the politics of the film, as we walked away from the theater. He, aware that Indians and Pakistanis, Hindus and Muslims, people who look like cousins, can go to war, was trying to explain a complexity to someone who saw the world in only black and white. It was a complexity she could not see, even when it had been right in front of her for two hours. Hotel Rwanda, directed by Terry George, who wrote the screenplay with Keir Pearson, is a depiction of massacre involving two black African peoples, the Tutsi and the Hutu; and by focusing on a man whose professionalism became empathy, it demonstrates the value of individual conscience wedded to practicality.
The film’s director Terry George previously wrote or co-wrote the screenplay for In the Name of the Father (1993), The Boxer (1997), and Hart’s War (2002); and he directed Some Mother’s Son (1996). Some Mother’s Son deals with the troubles in Ireland, and a hunger strike involving Bobby Sands and people who believed in him; and Hart’s War focuses on mid-century, wartime discrimination suffered by African-American soldiers, the Tuskegee Airmen, one of whom is played by the very talented Terrence Howard, and the film is set in a German prisoner of war facility and centers on a trial for the murder of a traitorous bigot. Hotel Rwanda, financed by several countries, the United Kingdom, Italy, and South Africa, won an audience award at the American Film Institute Festival, which showed films from forty-two countries. Distributed by United Artists, with Lions Gate, in the United States, the film has been compared to Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List and it has received impressive reviews for its actors. The New Yorker’s David Denby wrote that the “fascination” of the film was in observing the lead character’s use of his intelligence: “The film turns into a triumph for Don Cheadle, who never steps outside the character for emotional grandstanding or easy moralism. In all, I can hardly think of another movie in which sheer intelligence and decency have been made to seem so attractive or effective” (New Yorker, December 20/27, 2004). Scott Foundas called Cheadle’s performance exquisitely crafted in Variety, after reviewing it in September 2004 at the Toronto Film Festival, though Foundas found some of the film’s action monotonous. Cheadle has been quoted as saying that part of his preparation included asking Paul Rusesabagina questions regarding his preferences of books, food, and music, suggesting he was interested in perceiving the man’s inner life. AboutFilm.com’s Carlos Cavagna wrote, in a review accessed December 5, 2004, that actress Sophie Okonedo as Tatiana “shares a natural chemistry with Cheadle and has some of the most beautiful reactions I’ve ever seen on camera. She is a revelation.” The December 20, 2004 Newsweek review by David Ansen also called her a revelation.
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