In the spring of 1994, the central African nation of Rwanda was shattered by a bloody civil war. Over the course of 100 days, more than one million Rwandans were killed, as Hutu extremists murdered their Tutsi neighbors and any other countrymen who stood in their way. The genocide was made even more tragic because most of the world ignored the conflict and refused to get involved.
But in the midst of that horror a heroic figure emerged, a man who did everything in his power to save as many lives as possible.
Hotel Rwanda would be easy to categorize as an African version of Schindler's List, but trying to force this film into a specific category would actually diminish its importance. The fact that something this tragic could have occurred within the past 10 years indicates that our world still has a lot to learn, even from its recent history.
Don Cheadle (also starring these days in Ocean's Twelve) portrays Paul Rusesabagina, manager at the posh Hotel des Mille Collines in the Rwandan capital city of Kigali. While efforts to enact a peaceful settlement are carried on around him, Rusesabagina keeps the people in power happy so that his Belgian-owned establishment is running smoothly.
But his relatively simple existence is shattered when roving bands of Hutu militants begin the murder of the Tutsi minority in response to the death of the republic's Hutu president, assassinated in a plane crash by members of his own party and blamed on the Tutsi.
As we learned earlier in the film, this tension had its origins when Belgium occupied the country and divided the population based on certain physical features. Those who were taller, had paler skin, and thinner noses ("whiter" in their eyes) were the Tutsis; the rest were Hutus. The Tutsis were regarded as the upper class by the Belgians and were treated far better than the Hutus. But when Rwanda gained its independence, Belgium left the Hutus in charge, resulting in a continuing struggle for power.
Rusesabagina is Hutu, but his wife Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo) is Tutsi. Arriving home as the fighting erupts, Rusesabagina discovers that his Tutsi neighbors have come seeking protection, since they believe Rusesabagina is the only Hutu they can trust. He bargains with Hutu military personnel in order to bring all of the refugees to the hotel, hoping that United Nations peacekeepers, led by his friend, Colonel Oliver (Nick Nolte), can arrange for safe passage.
But the situation continues to deteriorate. Even as the Red Cross estimated that hundreds of thousands were being murdered, mostly by machete, the U.N. reduced its peacekeeping force from 2,500 to 270 soldiers. Only hotel guests visiting from other parts of the world are allowed to escape the country, and Rusesabagina is forced to use his cunning and limited resources to turn his hotel into a "four-star" refugee camp. He also uses the communication channels available to him, including a visiting photojournalist (Joaquin Phoenix), to let the world know that his country is in turmoil.