Same Racist Script, African Cast: The Film “Hotel Rwanda”

Posted: November 6, 2011 in Uncategorized
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By Dr. Wandia Njoya[1]

Rwandans are remembering the genocide of Tutsis 14 years ago, which was the culmination of a racist script written in Europe and then rehearsed in the continent for over 100 years with an African cast.

The Genocide was a play produced by France and Belgium and directed by the ruling, press and scholarly African elite, in which Rwandans were indoctrinated into believing that they were two races, one superior to the other, one Christian, the other pagan, and that the inferior and pagan race would be the “peasant” heroes of a French-style revolution who would wipe out the “aristocratic” race. (For a detailed analysis, see Josias Semujanga’s Origins of Rwandan Genocide).

While Rwanda remembers the bloody 100 days that began in April 1994, the world remains distracted by the American presidential race, while many of the world’s poor voice their anger with their governments’ failure to protect their food security from the agents of capitalism, unfair trade practices and exploitation with whom African leaders have been in bed for the last 40 odd years.

A morbid reminder of the very year the atrocities in Rwanda were committed, for while a million people lost their lives in a wave of madness, the world celebrated the first multi-racial elections in South Africa and later enjoyed the distraction of the World Cup.

The fact that Rwanda’s commemoration hardly figures in today’s news goes to demonstrate the need for Africa to rewrite its calendar in order to include the somber moments of her history as part of her national celebrations.

It makes little sense to celebrate the “independence” days, which were in reality the days we were given British and French constitutions, while we have no days on which we collectively take a moment of silence to remember the millions of Africans who have lost their lives in slave ships, colonial massacres, wars fought in Europe and liberation struggles on the continent.

And the fact that those landmarks are not commemorated explains why people like Lat Dior of Senegal, Mekatilili, Koitalel arap Samoei and Dedan Kimathi of Kenya, Patrice Lumumba of Congo, Samora Machel of Mozambique and many other military and political heroes remain covered under shrouds of silence imposed by respective governments.

A national psyche built on celebrating on achievements but never on commemorating the ancestors and remembering their sufferings is both unnatural and unAfrican, for there is nowhere in the world where life is a story of uninterrupted happiness.

This unnatural situation explains why African states celebrating their national holidays resemble junkies getting another fix while trying to convince everyone that they are not addicted but engaged in simple recreation.

This year’s remembrance of the genocide included the publication of a book in French by Alfred Ndahiro and Privat Rutazibwa whose title translates as Hotel Rwanda: Or the Genocide of Tutsis According to Hollywood.

The release of the book about the Oscar nominated film’s distortion of history was received by a cynical Kenyan journalist who wondered why the authors were making fuss about a work of fiction.

However, if he had grasped the horror of what happened in Rwanda, and had been patient enough to read the book, he would have known why Ndahiro and Rutazibwa’s work was necessary to write.

The book tackles the enigma of Hotel Rwanda, a film produced and acclaimed by Hollywood that focuses on the actions of Paul Rusesabagina, the manager of Hotel Mille Collines at the time of the genocide.

Ndahiro and Rutazibwa express indignation with the film’s portrayal of Rusesabagina as a Hutu who saved over 1,000 Tutsis through his wit, charm, selflessness and bribing the leaders of the Interahamwe militia with cigars and alcohol.

Based on historical realities and testimonies from survivors who were resident at the hotel, they point out that the film was a gross distortion of the truth.

For one, the organizers of the genocide were rich and already fully stocked with the commodities that Rusesabagina allegedly provided them in exchange for sparing the lives of Tutsis seeking refuge at the hotel.

Secondly, the survivors testify that Rusesabagina asked them to pay for food and accommodation, even though SABENA, the Belgian owners of the hotel, had given instructions that no payment was to be demanded.

Ndahiro and Rutazibwa argue that contrary to the film’s depiction, Rusesabagina’s heroism was not the reason that the Hotel Mille Collines was spared the murderous wrath of the genocidaires.

There were Euro-American nationals in the hotel awaiting evacuation by the UN. In addition, the genocide political machine was using the pictures of the Tutsis in the hotel to argue that there was no onslaught against the Tutsis and to distract the attention of the international community from the atrocities going on beyond the compound of the hotel.

The authors also take issue with the unethical manner in which Rusesabagina has made political and economic capital out of the misery of Rwandans, and in which he has at certain forums minimized the atrocities committed and even pleaded the innocence of two of the main architects of the genocide.

A casual observer may wonder why Ndahiro and Rutazibwa would go to such great lengths of delving through history and survivor testimonies to challenge a Hollywood film, when after all, as the Kenyan cynic argued, illusion is the premise of all Hollywood films. However, the pages of the book reveal what is at stake: truth, and the dignity of the victims.

In fact, the striking aspect of the book is less the facts that contradict the movie, and more the pain of Rwandan genocide survivors who watched a Hollywood sanitization of their nightmares, and worse, have to confront a world that read their painful history through a Hollywood fantasy.

I can only imagine their pain, for as it is, I do not have the stomach to watch Out of Africa, The Constant Gardener, The Last King of Scotland, Blood Diamond and other films on Africa produced by Hollywood.

The only reason I watched Hotel Rwanda two years after it was released was because a friend of mine initially said that the redeeming quality of the film was to bring the genocide to the attention of the world.

Even without Ndahiro and Rutazibwa’s much needed insight into the problems with the film, I have always had a problem with Hotel Rwanda, which is simple: the film’s central Eurocentric and racist narrative, which is the “love despite” phenomenon.

“Love despite” was described by Frantz Fanon in his book Black Skin, White Masks in which he expressed frustration with racist expressions of tenderness towards Africans which simultaneously reaffirm black inferiority.

He noted: “When people like me, they tell me it is in spite of my color. When they dislike me, they point out that it is not because of my color. Either way, I’m locked in an infernal cycle.”

It took me a few months of living in France to painfully recognize what he meant. On several occasions, I found myself in conversations in which some well-meaning (I assume) French folk would inform me that they “loved” the things which I knew their country despised Africans for.

One woman’s first words welcoming me to her home were that she was glad that a colored person (“une personne de couleur”) had visited her house because her neighborhood had voted for Jean-Marie Le Pen’s right wing party Le Front National (in other words, I should thank God that one white person has the benevolence to welcome me to her home when I should otherwise be shuttled out of the region, if not out of the country on the infamous charter flights for immigrants).

Later that afternoon, she and her friend “lovingly” told me how they wish they had my skin (oh yes. Even I was in shock).

By the time I left that country, I felt had spent a whole year listening to those one-hour sermons in which the preacher reminds you for 58 minutes that you are a wretched, good-for-nothing sinner who deserves only hell and damnation, and for two minutes welcomes you to the loving arms of this Christ who apparently doesn’t think very highly of you anyway.

I had had enough of the anthropological documentaries on TV – which until recently, were the only programs on French TV in which black people were visible – in which the commentator paints African peoples in the most unflattering terms possible and then praises them for their cultural peculiarity and God knows what else.

Hotel Rwanda follows the same script. Paul Rusesabagina’s character stands as the man whom their viewers should understand as having every propensity, if not every right, to kill the Tutsis seeking refuge in his hotel, but out of some unexpected and surprising benevolence chooses to save them.

We don’t see him as a complicated character with his own foibles that Ndahiro and Rutazibwa talk about, or his own self-interests, and the imperative of saving his own family (he is married to a Tutsi) is significantly downplayed.

Don Cheadle played a role that was strikingly similar to that of the Christian God who should logically send us to hell, but who redeems us out of some inexplicable love and amazing grace.

The film’s character was little different from the benevolent colonizer, charity organization, Hollywood film star or Euro-American politician who visits Africa “despite” the chaotic place that it supposedly is, touches Africans “despite” their dark diseased skin, seeks to save Africans from disease, poverty and war “despite” the fact that the continent is supposedly the embodiment of these very things.

Hotel Rwanda follows the narrative that has colonized and enslaved us for centuries, in which Africans are brutalized by a Europe which, out of its benevolence, seeks to beat our worst affliction out of us: the fact that God created us as Africans and not as Europeans.

That is why in every atrocity in the world, Euro-American governments and philanthropists embark on an obsessive and meticulous sifting through evil in the search for a needle in the haystack in the form of a “good slave master” (sometimes substituted for an abolitionist, for example in the film Amazing Grace), the “good colonizer”, the “good Nazi,” the “good Hutu,”and the “good” white South African in the apartheid era who does the unexpected, which is to behave as a human being and treat others with respect.

And that is the pathology of racism and films like Hotel Rwanda: treating others as human beings is considered a benevolent and unrestricted choice, but never as an obligation demanded by humanity, society, justice and the gods.

In fact, the greater the evil and the less the expectation or obligation to behave decently, the juicier the heroism for Hollywood, because the hero is seen as independent of all obligation and to act purely out of free will.

In other words, the message of Hollywood is “to hell with society and morality because they are necessarily evil; long live the individual who is necessarily good.”

Meanwhile, the politics, economics and historical process by which a society was structured and forced to side with evil – in Rwanda’s case, colonialism, racism, Christianity and neo-colonialism – are conspiquously absent from the Hollywood epic.

Paul Rusesabagina does not deserve the heap of accolades he has received. Even if he did all the things that the film depicts him as doing, which I don’t believe he did anyway, he owed it to humanity and to justice to do them.

He may have spared the lives of Tutsis in the hotel, if that is indeed what he did, but he is not the one who gave them that life. It is Imana who gave them the life they still have, and the life that was taken away from so many others.

And it is the Rwanda Patriotic Front, not the “love despite” coming from unexpected heroes, which put a military end to the madness against the odds set up by the French government under Mitterand and the indifference of the international community.

In fact, I suspect that the lens of “love despite” through which Euro-America reads the genocide of Tutsis is Euro-America’s way of hiding its disbelief that it is Africans, not the UN or Euro-America, who decisively ended the onslaught of the Interahamwe, while Euro-America, true to character, pleaded ignorance or actively supported the perpetrators of the genocide.

Shame on Hollywood for trying to divert our attention from our God-given gifts of humanity and dignity to an artificial benevolence which asks us to be thankful that we are not hated or killed.

Our attention should be on the people and institutions who make insanity so widespread, not on rare members of those institutions who are human in a brief moment of sanity.

Besides, as Ndahiro and Rutazibwa note, there are Hutus who risked and even lost their lives trying to obtain food for the hotel residents, and to whom the survivors are grateful.

Meanwhile, it is incumbent upon us to remember that racism, madness, mayhem are not the norm from which we should be temporarily redeemed by an unexpected hero.

They are an artificial and anti-human status quo which needs to be pulled out from its roots in our institutions and in our psyche.

And this cannot be done by a rare hero who defies the odds, but by a collective effort to destroy anti-human institutions, understand the complicated world in which we live, and commemorate the icons and ordinary people who resisted the evil that has claimed millions of lives and distorted millions others.

We cannot accomplish this task when our national holidays are dominated by celebrations of European concessions, or when our churches are riding the wave of prosperity gospels and colluding with the press to push microphones into the faces of victims in order to extort some proclamations of forgiveness.

These gestures are useless if they are not balanced by the discipline to reflect, the soul to mourn, the dignity to repent and pay reparations, and the imperative to bring evil doers to justice.

As the ecclesiastical philosopher says, there’s a time for everything, to laugh and to weep, to dance and to mourn.

Africa already has this philosophy embodied in her traditions, religions, rituals and oral traditions, as well as in the blues traditions of black America. We now need to institutionalize it as part of our national psyches.


[1] This analysis was first posted on May 6th, 2008

  1. rwandanheart says:

    Wonderful article. This has reinforced my effort to stop Rusesabagina from speaking in Winnipeg on November 23. Thank you Tom!