As America strives to prod Iraq to "democracy," which President Bush defines as sugar and spice and everything nice (such as protection of minority rights), "Hotel Rwanda" could serve as a timely reminder that long-oppressed peoples, like the Hutus in Rwanda (and perhaps the Shi'ites in Iraq), generally assume the word means … majority rule.
And what the Hutu majority wanted was vengeance on their traditional rulers, the Tutsis.
Not that you'll learn much from "Hotel Rwanda" itself. Its script methodically excludes any insights into why Hutu mobs butchered at least a half million Tutsis and moderate Hutus in the spring of 1994.
No, the reason to see this solidly made little movie is Don Cheadle's subtle performance as Paul Rusesabagina, the suave Hutu manager of Rwanda's finest hotel, who saved 1,286 refugees through Schindler's List-style subterfuges.
Cheadle has been to film acting what Dave Chappelle was to television comedy -- the man who had been the Next Big Thing for so long he was becoming a joke. "Hotel Rwanda" won't make Cheadle a matinee idol -- the topic is too foreboding -- but it finally gives him the character lead he deserves.
Further, "Hotel Rwanda" is less depressing than it sounds, offering one of the few Rwandan stories with a happy ending. On-screen gore is minimized, allowing the film a PG-13 rating.
Unfortunately, the screenplay aims at self-absorbed white liberals who think all Africans look alike and that white racism is the root of all evil. The script even claims that it's merely a white myth that Tutsis tend to be taller than Hutus, asserting that the Belgian imperialists arbitrarily assigned those identities to random Rwandans. Yet, soon the Hutu Power radio station is broadcasting the prearranged code to begin exterminating the Tutsis: "Cut down the tall trees." [...more]
Who are the Tutsis? Some anthropologists argue that the label is meaningless. But everyone in Rwanda, Burundi and Congo understands it. The stereotypical Tutsi looks like Rwanda's president, Paul Kagame: tall and thin, with a long thin nose. [Here's Kagame chatting with Larry Summers, who could get some good advice from Kagame on why he shouldn't fear feminists so much: "What are they going to do to you? Chop you up with machetes?"] The other cliché about Tutsis is that they live by herding cattle, whereas their squat, flat-nosed neighbours (this includes the Hutus) subsist by growing crops. In reality, the differences between the two groups are blurred, and there is plenty of intermarriage.
The relationship between the two groups is similar to Latin America, where after 500 years of intermarriage, the ruling class still looks white. But, nobody understands how Latin America works (some of my most gratifying emails are from Mexicans and South Americans thanking me for explaining this paradox), so it's hardly surprising that nobody in the West understands how Rwanda works either. I wrote in my review:
The Tutsi ascendancy resembled the white pre-eminence in Latin America. Intermarriage was frequent, yet physical differences between the classes endured, just as they have in Mexico, where despite five centuries of intermarrying, the elite remains much taller and fairer than the masses. The trick is that Mexico's most successful short, dark men often wed tall, blonde women and have more European-looking offspring, thus replenishing the caste system. Likewise, in "Hotel Rwanda," Cheadle's ultra-competent Hutu executive is married to a Tutsi beauty who is taller and fairer than he is. (She's played by Oscar nominee Sophie Okonedo, whose mother is a Jewish Englishwoman.)
The Economist continues:
In the West, the Tutsis are best known as the victims of genocide. In 1994, the Hutu-dominated government of Rwanda tried to exterminate every Tutsi within its borders, and nearly succeeded. The slaughter stopped when an army of Tutsi exiles—scattered around the region by previous anti-Tutsi pogroms—overthrew the genocidal regime and took over the country. Mr Kagame, a Rwandan Tutsi raised in Uganda, was its leader.
Since then, Mr Kagame's ostensibly multi-ethnic but actually Tutsi-led government has been ruthlessly determined to prevent another genocide and to hang on to power. Besides crushing revolts within Rwanda, his men have twice invaded Congo to hunt down the Hutu génocidaires who fled there. They killed perhaps 200,000 killers and innocents in Congo, and sparked a terrible civil war.
All these conflicts have been, first and foremost, about power and its perks. But because insecurity makes people turn to their tribe for protection, the faultlines of war quickly become tribal. In this region, that often means the Tutsis versus the rest.
Everywhere they live, the Tutsis are a small minority. In Rwanda, where they are perhaps 15% of a population of 9m, they have been firmly in charge since 1994. The country is peaceful and visibly better run than its neighbours. The government is relatively clean, refreshingly businesslike, and beloved of foreign donors. But the surface calm disguises wild currents below. The government's line is that there are no Hutus or Tutsis, only Rwandans. Its ideologues argue that the Hutu-Tutsi divide was a creation of Rwanda's old colonial masters, the Belgians, and that a Tutsi is simply a Hutu whose ancestors owned cows. Public discussion of ethnic differences is, in effect, banned.
Rwandan Hutus can't help noticing that tall, thin people hold a lot of the top jobs, but they risk trouble if they say so...
In Burundi, Hutu-Tutsi relations have been improving, albeit from a wretched base. The country has roughly the same ethnic mix as Rwanda, but its Tutsi elite has run it for much of its 40-odd years of independence, keeping the majority down with flashes of exceptional brutality. A huge massacre of Hutus in Burundi in 1993 helped to convince the Hutu regime in Rwanda that the only way to ensure its own survival was to kill all Tutsis.
Burundi is still at war, but that war is less bloody than it was. Most Hutu rebels have been brought into a power-sharing government. Burundians openly discuss ethnic issues, and a South African-style truth and reconciliation commission is planned. A few hundred diehard Hutu rebels still lob explosives into the capital, but not many people were being killed until last week. That slaughter took place near the border with Congo; the Burundian government is convinced that it was the work of Hutu militias based in Congo.
The situation in Congo is the most complex. Because it is so vast and thinly populated, refugees from its crowded, violent neighbours have been thronging there for over a century. Some 5% of the 20m people in eastern Congo are now Tutsis.
In all three countries, Tutsis feel besieged. Some Tutsis liken themselves to Israelis: they may be few in number and surrounded by enemies, but they survive because they are clever and well-organised, whereas those who would annihilate them are corrupt and incompetent.
Yet, for all its troubles, Africa retains its intense appeal. The first 5 minutes of Hotel Rwanda rekindled the odd sense of joy I feel in watching daily life in Africa, with the women in technicolor clothes swaying under bundles balanced on their heads. I only wish that part of the film was longer before the chopping begins.
No movie captures the beauty, romance, and cheerfulness of which Africa is sometimes capable better than the remarkable early 1980s Afrikaaner slapstick comedy about a Kalahari Bushman's quest to throw a Coke bottle that brought trouble to his his band off the edge of the world, The Gods Must Be Crazy. This microbudget Boer-language import was one of my two favorite movies of the era, along with Repo Man. I just watched it again tonight and it lived up to my memories. Sure, it romanticizes the Bushmen, yet they deserve it -- they really are the least violent hunter-gatherer tribe in the world.