Clothes Make the Sanctuary
Friday, January 14, 2005
In "Hotel Rwanda," Don Cheadle, the film's star, is almost always wearing a suit and tie. They form the unremarkable workday wardrobe of his character, a hotel manager named Paul Rusesabagina. Rusesabagina continues to wear his rigidly professional attire even as his country collapses in bloody genocide and his luxury hotel is transformed into a refugee camp. Rusesabagina's clothes serve as complex visual markers of civility, order and authority.
During his long career selling service, luxury and panache, Rusesabagina has become adept at the arts of flattery, cajolery and even bribery. He has learned that a box of imported cigars is worth far more than its price tag when it can be used to coax a government official into giving his Hotel des Mille Collines a fair shake. Rusesabagina is not simply a student of the hospitality industry; he is well versed in human nature both at its best and at its craven worst. The suits put a sheen of refinement on all of his shadowy dealings.
The story of "Hotel Rwanda" is not only about genocide and the world's indifference to it. It is equally a portrait of one man and his response to mayhem. Rusesabagina, a man initially concerned only with the safety of his own family, eventually saves 1,200 Rwandans from being murdered. Business attire serves as both his comfort and his weapon.
In one scene in the film, Rusesabagina returns to the Mille Collines after having ventured into the increasingly dangerous city of Kigali to negotiate for supplies. His car rumbles along a road shrouded in fog. The driver can barely see and soon the car begins to bounce and swerve wildly. Certain they have veered off the road, Rusesabagina yells to the driver to stop. Rusesabagina opens his door, stumbles out and then falls. He quickly realizes they have been driving across a field of bodies -- bloodied and lifeless from the blows of machetes.
When the innkeeper returns to the hotel, he yanks at his tie and strips off his bloody shirt. He washes himself. And then he begins to dress -- once again in a suit. But in his distress, he is unable to knot his tie. He collapses in a heap and cries. The emotional weight Rusesabagina has been carrying becomes evident in that small, incomplete gesture. Rusesabagina is a dignified man. He is civilized and reasonable. He is a businessman. The formality of his appearance functions as scaffolding, propping him up and preventing him from slipping into despair -- or, worse, into barbarity. In that moment of undress, he realizes that he is slowly losing his footing.
Throughout the film, when Rusesabagina dresses for his meetings with murderous thugs, he affords them a degree of respect that they do not deserve but clearly crave. With his jacket and four-in-hand, he strokes their egos, bribing them with a show of esteem and honor as valuable as a gold watch or a stack of cash -- maybe more so. They are the Mafia, the drug crew, or any other gang of killers that fancies itself an organization of entrepreneurs and not simply a mob of killers. Rusesabagina's suit says he is prepared to play their game. He will do what is necessary. In some ways, the suit is as much for them as it is for him.
Cheadle's character doesn't make overt references to his clothes. But he makes it clear how they fit into his plan for survival. Rusesabagina must maintain the reputation of the hotel. He must uphold its commercial value and not allow it to be seen as a squatters' camp. He believes that even if the owners do not care about people they have never met, they most certainly will care about valuable real estate. And so he delivers bills to hotel rooms knowing that the occupants cannot pay them. The hotel bar serves expensive whiskey. The bribes continue. And Rusesabagina dresses for business every day.
The clothes provide reassurance for him -- like a nicely tailored security blanket. With death all around, who could blame him for seeking support wherever he can? In the same subtle ways, clothes offer security on a daily basis. Few garments offer as much protection as a suit. Walking into an interview, a presentation or an interrogation wearing a suit shortens the list of reasons to fret. Putting on the suit is the sartorial equivalent of standing up straight and pulling the shoulders back. Of bucking up. The tie is shorthand for maturity. It helps to identify the adult in the room, the leader in the group.
And for Rusesabagina, when his world was falling apart, a tie marked him as the man others would follow to safety.