The film begins with a darkened screen and a terrifying radio broadcast of a Rwandan Hutu demagogue inciting racist resentment against the nation's Tutsi minority. But at first, politics don't trouble Paul (Don Cheadle), a Hutu with a Tutsi wife (Sophie Okonedo). Instead, he maintains order at the Milles Collines, a Belgian-owned luxury hotel. With impeccable savoir faire, Paul masters his career, knowing exactly which wheels to grease and how to curry favor with international guests and Rwandan bigwigs. Early on, he reveals the mystique of status symbols, and how Cuban cigars make better bribes than their cash value.
But while glad-handing Hutu wholesalers, Paul sees a crate fall off a forklift to reveal a cache of machetes. That chilling portent only hints at the violence to come. The Hutus would launch a genocidal campaign that claimed 800,000 Tutsi lives over 100 days and turned Paul's suburban neighborhood into a terrorized police state in mere hours. Paul eventually makes the Milles Collines into a Tutsi sanctuary, and his skill at working the system means the difference between life and death for hundreds, including his wife.
Irish filmmaker Terry George implies murder on a massive scale while showing surprisingly little gore. One surreal moment shows a menacing Hutu, wearing a purple wig and waving a power drill, as he hurls a blood-stained United Nations peacekeeper helmet on the hotel driveway. George uses suspense film techniques to seize our attention for Hotel Rwanda's righteous moral clarity.
Cheadle superbly conveys Paul's anguish at the worsening events and his desperation to keep his composure while negotiating with Hutus, knowing it might keep the others alive. He's understandably horrified when he finds countless bodies strewn along a country road one night, but proves even more affecting afterward, when he knots his necktie improperly and breaks down weeping, his old values crushed by the enormity of his plight. Okonedo complements Cheadle marvelously well, refusing to play victim despite her helplessness.
Hotel Rwanda holds the West directly accountable for its inaction during the massacres. At one point, Paul gathers the refugees and tells them to contact any non-African they know: "We must shame them into helping us." The film even includes excerpts from an actual press conference of a State Department spokesman parsing the difference between the terms "genocide" and "acts of genocide": It's apparently OK to ignore the latter, but not the former.
As United Nations' Col. Oliver, Nick Nolte seems more like a gruff football coach than a veteran peacekeeper, but he connects with reservoirs of guilt in one of the film's most powerful exchanges. Breaking the news that the U.N. will only evacuate the Europeans, leaving the Rwandan nationals to all but certain death, he blames Western indifference on racism. With self-lacerating bitterness, he tells Paul, "They think you're dirt. You're not even a nigger -- you're an African."
By focusing on the perspective of black characters, Hotel Rwanda makes a powerful contrast to the anti-apartheid movies of the late 1980s like Cry Freedom, which stressed the stories of white witnesses over South Africa's actual black martyrs. Hotel Rwanda doesn't fully explain the Hutus' rampant psychosis (it traces the Hutu/Tutsi division to Belgian colonial rule), but perhaps the filmmakers realize that such atrocities defy rational comprehension.
A decade has passed since the massacres, but Hotel Rwanda's anger at Western inaction still resonates, especially given the huge loss of lives due to the recent strife in Sudan. If those Africans would just live over oil fields, they'd see just how helpful America and the rest of the world could be.