The portrayal of Africa and African peoples in western culture has always been influenced by the concept of “Heart of Darkness.” Ever since the first colonizers came to Africa to establish the dominance of the West, the view of the local nations has always been that of underdeveloped, barbaric, uncivilized, and evil in nature (Apol 55). This has been reflected in western cinematography, with films portraying Africa and its nations as anything other than a torn wasteland filled with tragedy and grief being few and far between. Hotel Rwanda is a story set in the event of the Rwandan Genocide, during which over 1 million Tutsi and moderate Hutu were killed by the government forces, the armed militia, as well as regular Hutu citizens, who sought ethnic cleansing as a means of fixing their country’s ills (Kayihura and Zukus 17).
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The film Hotel Rwanda falls into the paradigm of misrepresenting African culture because it falls into the overarching western narrative of portraying Africa as the Heart of Darkness, offers the banality of evil as an explanation to the events, while downplaying the effects of western colonialism on what has happened, and it is viewed as unauthentic in Africa and Rwanda specifically.
Africa as Heart of Darkness
The Western view of Africa and its peoples has always been that of underdeveloped natives with an inferior and warlike culture. The media portrayed African culture and its people accordingly. Two notable exceptions to that trend are Black Panther (Wakanda) and Coming 2 America. Other famous works of Western cinema, such as Lord of War, Blood Diamond, Hotel Rwanda, and Black Hawk Down, focus on the larger problems of pan African continent, such as arms trading, genocide, civil war, child slavery, and wars for diamonds (Kayihura and Zukus 18). They rarely provide context for the events that have happened and generally describe the reasons for atrocities and cruelty by the banality of evil.
In Hotel Rwanda this trend is present at face value – the audience is given a very little background on the conflict, besides the fact that there are the Tutsi and there are Hutu, and they hate each other because Tutsi are rich and Hutu are not (Kayihura and Zukus 27). It is a one-dimensional portrayal of the conflict that misrepresents how African culture was warped into sustaining such an atrocity. The main counterclaim to various historic inaccuracies of Rwanda and other films of the same type is that Hollywood provides an artistic interpretation of the events and cannot be held responsible for any inaccuracies (Apol 60). However, given the influence and reach their work has on the masses, especially in the West, they are to be held responsible for these gross misinterpretations of African culture.
Downplaying the Influence of the West
Hotel Rwanda ignores the influence of centuries of Western Colonialism on Hutu and Tutsi culture. It must be admitted that the film does not show the West in a favorable light, unlike many other works mentioned in this essay. It shows them as self-serving entities that look down on the people of Rwanda and would not interfere in the genocide because the country has nothing of value to them. However, it ignores the historic roots of conflict between Hutu and Tutsi. Before western colonizers reached Ruanda-Urundi (Rwanda), the country was ruled by a monarchy, with Tutsi being the ruling class and Hutu – being the peasant class (Burton 155). They were a single nation, however. Western influence in the country spread with the explorer Hanning Speke, who believed the Tutsi to be descendants of Noah, to explain their elevated position (Burton 155). This created an artificial cultural divide, which made the Hutu view the Tutsi as invaders rather than their own people.
The Hamitic Hypothesis was then perpetuated by the Belgians, who committed many atrocities to support the Tutsi, further dehumanizing them in the eyes of the Hutu (Burton 156). With Tutsi becoming more westernized, the monolithic culture also experienced a divide, effectively creating two different peoples occupying the same land, which was what made the genocide so easy (Burton 156). The main counterclaim to the issues raised above is that the film was limited in screen time to provide enough context. While it is impossible to educate an audience that knows nothing of Africa or Rwanda using only 2 hours of time, the complete absence of mention of colonialism delivers a flawed message about African culture, and the influence of west injections into it (Harrow and Garritano 39).
The Inauthenticity of Hotel Rwanda
Finally, Hotel Rwanda is considered to be inauthentic at its core. It was filmed in South Africa, with American actors, and with only a surface input and research made about the genocide and its historical underpinnings of it. In Rwanda and adjacent countries, there is a memorable day for the victims of the genocide (Cook 163). That day is spent in mourning, with the local channels showing films about the tragedy or related to it, such as the Sometimes in April, Beyond the Gates, or Shake Hands with the Devil (Cook 165).
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Hotel Rwanda is not popular or even viewed among the populace because it does not promote unity and reconciliation, and is historically inaccurate. Some complaints involve the fact that Paul Russesabagina, the main character of the film, was known to be less virtuous than portrayed, and offered rich rescues separate rooms for money, while the poor were kept in closets in the basement (Cook 166). While an argument could be made that Russessabagina was a victim of defamation for various political reasons, the fact that the film is largely unpopular in the country it about says much about its authenticity.
Hotel Rwanda is viewed as one of the iconic pieces about Africa in the West. It propagates the ideas of Heart of Darkness and the banality of evil. While it does take some responsibility for and views the West as self-serving and selfish, it does not go deep enough to explore how colonialism affected the local culture, turning it into what it was. The movie is viewed as inauthentic in Rwanda, and only makes the western audiences less sensitive to what problems the continent has, and its role in it.
Apol, Laura. Poetry, Poetic Inquiry and Rwanda: Engaging with the Lives of Others. Vol. 3. Springer Nature, 2020.
Burton, Ashley. “Hotel Rwanda: A Twisted Perception.” Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History, vol. 7, no. 2, 2017, pp. 154-159.
Cook, Ann-Marie. “Based on the True Story: Cinema’s mythologised vision of the Rwandan genocide.” Promoting and Producing Evil. Brill Rodopi, 2011. pp. 161-178.
Harrow, Kenneth W., and Carmela Garritano, eds. A Companion to African Cinema. John Wiley & Sons, 2018.
Kayihura, Edouard, and Kerry Zukus. Inside the Hotel Rwanda: The Surprising True Story… and Why it Matters Today. BenBella Books, 2014.