In the summer of 1982, as a recent college graduate hitchhiking through central Africa, I spent two weeks in Rwanda, a gorgeous country of a thousand hills, all crowded with terraced farms and houses and huts.

The capital, Kigali, was a small city, little more than embassies, a few banks and hotels, the Maison du President, and a big military encampment. This was the first African country I’d seen where women served in the gendarmerie-like the lovely, tall twenty-five-year-old I met one night at a popular four-star hotel, the Milles Collines. She was named Jeanne, and we sat outside at the bar by the swimming pool and had a drink; we danced and flirted a little. Jeanne wore a soldier’s uniform decorated with a lapel-button picture of the president, General Juvenal Habyarimana. I’d read about the colonial history of Rwanda, including the Hutu-Tutsi riots of the 1960s, when thousands had been killed, and I asked Jeanne-she herself was a Tutsi, she told me-about the situation between Hutu and Tutsis.

“That belongs to the past,” she said, somewhat guardedly. “There is no longer any problem.” Pas de problème.

Today I shudder to remember Jeanne, and to imagine what might have befallen her twelve years later, in the holocaust in which nearly one million of her fellow Tutsis were massacred. Back in 1982 it was impossible, amid the confident, stylish ambience of the hotel, with its easy-seeming mix of European tourists and African elites (and of Tutsis and Hutus), to imagine such terrors. Nor could I know that somewhere in the crowd that night was a Hutu man named Paul Rusesabagina, who as manager of the Milles Collines in 1994 would emerge as an unlikely hero, saving a thousand desperate Tutsis who’d sought refuge there from the ethnic slaughter-a story of personal heroism now chronicled in Terry George’s deeply moving film, Hotel Rwanda.

Hotel Rwanda takes the form of a disaster movie. The opening sequences follow the impeccably attired and mild-mannered Rusesabagina through a daily routine strewn with ominous portents. At home, a Tutsi neighbor is harassed and beaten by gendarmes. At the import company where Rusesabagina buys black-market whisky and cigars for the Milles Collines guests, a shipping crate breaks open, revealing a secret cargo of machetes. In his hotel van, he winces in dismay at the violent demagogery of Hutu Power Radio, inveighing against Tutsi “spies” and “cockroaches.” Soon the Hutu president, Habyarimana, dies in a mysterious plane crash (which the hatemongering radio blames on a Tutsi plot) and the nightmare begins-a perfect storm of human, historical, and political energies unleashed upon a helpless minority.

Director George and his co-screenwriter, Keir Pearson, keep the political details to a bare minimum. Blame points toward the UN and the Americans; as the frenzy of killing continues, we hear a State Department spokesman quibbling cynically over whether “genocide” is occurring in Rwanda, or merely “acts of genocide”-a Clintonesque linguistic evasion that history will treat far more harshly than the question of what is is. The focus remains on the dire human situation inside the hotel and on the heroism of Rusesabagina, whose own wife, Tatiana (played by British-Nigerian actress Sophie Okonedo), is a Tutsi. The superb American actor Don Cheadle captures Rusesabagina’s look of intelligent, suppressed worry gradually verging into dread, and his desperate attempt to remain optimistic despite the deepening chaos. In his repeated reassurances to his wife and children we hear echoes of German Jews in the 1930s: It can’t happen here.

The film explores a fine line between faith and denial. Rusesabagina worships the white man, the Europeans, whose personal mannerisms he affects-perpetually buttoning or unbuttoning his suit coat, a tiny point of style he practices to suave perfection. The imitation is based not on vanity, we understand, but on deep admiration, a belief that the Europeans represent the best civilization has to offer, not only in manners but in morals, including mercy. In this Rusesabagina proves badly deluded, and when the unit of Belgian soldiers that finally materializes declares its intention to save only the tourists and journalists in the hotel-the Europeans, that is-he must face the bitter recognition that his gods have deserted him. “I am a fool!” he cries in anguish.

Cheadle’s Rusesabagina is anything but an imposing man, slight of build and almost timid in manner. Yet once he realizes that no one else will intervene to save the day, he proves endlessly resourceful: plying corrupt military officers with liquor and bribing them with jewelry; inventing threats of retaliation from America and Europe; calling well-placed friends in the Rwandan government to beg their help. He does whatever he can, strategizing on the fly. He emphasizes to his terrified staff the importance of maintaining appearances: “This cannot be a refugee camp. The Interahamwe [the murderous Hutu militia leading the bloodletting] believe this is a four-star Sabena hotel. That is the only thing that is keeping us alive.” As a trainee, Rusesabagina absorbed a mantra from his Belgian superiors: “Maintain the Milles Collines dignity at all times.” Under unimaginable pressures, he gives the slogan a profoundly ironic meaning.

Hotel Rwanda is not reluctant to pull on the heartstrings, repeatedly announcing its protagonist’s goodness (“You are an oasis in the desert,” his wife tells him; “You are a good man”), until it’s a relief to recall, from an interview, that the real-life Rusesabagina (who survived and lives in Belgium) is known to enjoy a drink or two. Yet the film, full of agonizing scenes where life and death hang in the balance, conveys both a powerful sense of deliverance and a tantalizing portrayal of heroism, reminding us that courage is a mystery, a deep wellspring that arises where no one expects it, least of all the hero himself.

It’s fascinating, watching Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby, to see the seventy-four-year-old actor working side by side with Morgan Freeman, both playing crotchety old men who run the shabby L.A. boxing gym where a spunky young woman with a trailer-trash background (Hilary Swank) shows up and begs them to train her. Freeman is the consummate natural actor who endows every role with effortless conviction; he could flack for cell phones, wine, whatever, and have you laughing or crying. Eastwood, on the other hand, has made a career of not exactly acting. His range is small, and there are a lot of things he does poorly (for example, when he smiles broadly to express hilarity or joy, as in The Bridges of Madison County, he looks insane). He never dissolves into the role-can you imagine him doing an accent?-in the flexible, naturalistic way of a Don Cheadle. You are never not aware that this is Eastwood acting.

But this iconic star quality is getting an interesting twist in the final phase of his career. Million Dollar Baby continues a line of films, traceable back to Unforgiven, in which Eastwood has altered his take on violence, representing it as tragic rather than cathartic, and in the process undoing the stoicism of his mythic character. At one juncture in this movie, his character, Frankie Dunn, confesses his spiritual bewilderment to a priest, and breaks down, weeping. As screen tears go, his aren’t effusive. Then again, the first time you saw your father cry, it might have been just a quick swipe at a teary eye, but you probably buckled inwardly. The thrill of watching Eastwood revamp his mythic meanings goes far beyond good acting.

Eastwood’s signature tics and gestures remain, but their meaning has been transformed. Take, for instance, his trademark squint, one eye wincing slightly to indicate incipient outrage. That squint used to mean Dirty Harry Callahan was about to blow someone away. No more. In Million Dollar Baby, when Eastwood’s star prizefighter informs him he’s leaving him for a more ambitious trainer, we see the squint...but no retaliation follows. Nowadays Eastwood’s characters absorb more than they dish out. His menacing whisper has also taken on new meaning. Old age has taken that seething, nearly obscene insinuation, the voice of fury barely held in check-“Do you feel lucky, punk?”-and turned it hoarse and laryngeal. Eastwood sounds frail.

As a director, Eastwood likes to keep things moving, and rarely surprises you. Million Dollar Baby offers a familiar fight-film chiaroscuro of shadows and alleys, ratty gyms, and a lone boxer working the speed bag late into the night. A certain sentimentality lurks, like Swank’s Maggie, practicing her boxing footwork while waitressing at the diner, or Frankie, continuing to write hundreds of letters to his estranged daughter, all of them Returned to Sender. Really, hundreds? And does he really sit around the gym reading Yeats? Thrilling as it is to hear Clint Eastwood recite “Lake Isle of Innisfree,” you don’t believe it for a second. And tired lines (like “I’ll never quit boxing. I like the stink too much, I guess”) suggest a director not overly concerned with being original.

That said, the second half of the movie takes a big surprise turn. I won’t give it away, except to say that it engages an issue dear to Commonweal readers, and resolves it in a way many will find troubling. Well, maybe you shouldn’t blame a fight film for picking an argument. I’m not, anyway. In a year without obvious Oscar heavyweights, Million Dollar Baby is emerging as a favorite, and we could do worse. Lesser contenders have walked away with the prize. 

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, the Atlantic, and many other magazines, as well as in Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Last to Go, was produced for television by ABC, and he has been a writer-in-residence at Amherst and Emerson colleges. 

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Published in the 2005-01-28 issue: View Contents
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