Hotel Rwanda was one of several movies with African settings that opened in the early 2000s – others included John Boorman’s In My Country (2004) and Sydney Pollack’s The Interpreter (2005) – reflecting heightened interest in the continent as multiple crises unfolded there. Those films generally featured white protagonists, but Hotel Rwanda focused on Black suffering and Black heroism in the horrific circumstances of the Rwandan genocide, which had occurred about a decade before the picture was made.
Directed and cowritten by the politically alert filmmaker Terry George, the drama earned Academy Award nominations for stars Don Cheadle and Sophie Okonedo, who play main characters Paul and Tatiana Rusesabagina, and for the screenplay, which is based on actual events. The film also generated controversy, with some critics charging that it distorted and exaggerated the heroism of the real-life Paul Rusesabagina.
The story takes place in 1994, when Rwanda was torn by strife between the Hutu majority, who controlled the government and military, and the Tutsi minority, who had been favored when the country was a Belgian colony but were targeted for extermination when civil war erupted in 1990. In an early scene, a Rwandan journalist explains the conflict between Hutus and Tutsis to American reporter Jack Daglish (Joaquin Phoenix), saying that the Belgian colonists chose the Tutsis as favored people because they were supposedly more elegant. The way was then opened for the Hutus to seize power when independence came, sparking a wave of revenge against the Tutsis for their years of dominance.
As the film begins, it’s clear that hostility is rampant among Hutus, who insult the Tutsis as subhuman “cockroaches” on the radio and in the streets. Justifiably alarmed, a large number of Tutsis seek shelter from violent Hutu militias in the fancy hotel managed by Paul, a Hutu who enjoys good connections with militia and army officials, buying their affection with gifts of fine whisky and Cuban cigars. Paul has reaped good benefits from his Hutu background and business skills, and when a neighbor is brutalized by rebels across the street from his home, his first instinct is to remain quiet. But he and his Tutsi wife are forced to take a stand when refugees flock to his hotel.
While violence escalates, Paul scrambles to aid the refugees and save his family, and Tatiana fears for the safety of her missing Tutsi relatives. Help might come from the United Nations peacekeeping force stationed in the area, but its officers have been forbidden to take part in the conflict, a decision angrily denounced by Colonel Oliver (Nick Nolte), a UN officer painfully aware of how desperate the situation is. The film softens its depiction of genocide by keeping the most explicit mayhem offscreen, but Terry George makes it very clear that Paul and Tatiana are rare survivors of butchery almost too terrible to be believed. The real-life 1994 massacre killed more than 900,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus, and the toll would have been even higher if Paul hadn’t protected 1,268 lives, as the film’s end credits reveal. (He remained an activist in later years, becoming a severe critic of Rwanda’s president; in 2021 he was charged with supporting terrorism and sentenced to prison in what some scholars decried as a political show trial.)
While some aspects of Hotel Rwanda are specific to the genocide of 1994, others remain as relevant as ever, including the difficulty of calling attention to atrocities in faraway places. Paul is instantly excited when his reporter friend Jack manages to video a bloodbath not far from the hotel, convinced that Americans and Europeans will intervene in the conflict when they see this evidence on their TV screens. Not so, Jack replies: “They’ll say, ‘Oh my God, that’s horrible,’ and then they’ll go on eating their dinners.” This prediction seems all too accurate, but in real life justice was ultimately meted out to some guilty figures, including two characters in the film: militia leader George Rutaganda, sentenced to life in prison, and army general Augustin Bizimungu, sent to a UN tribunal that gave him a 30-year sentence. Hotel Rwanda gives a humane and dramatic account of a harrowing episode in modern African history.