The first scene in Lee Daniels’ The Butler starts off with an emotional wallop. Cecil Gaines, a Black man, sits in a chair in the White House waiting for an interview. His mind drifts back to 1926 when a horrible event happened on a Southern cotton plantation where Cecil (Michael Rainey Jr.) was a young boy helping his dad (David Banner) and mom (Mariah Carey) pick cotton.
Now it’s 1957 and Cecil (Forest Whitaker) is a grown man, married and with two boys. He eventually landed a job at a hotel where a White House employee (Clarence Williams III) discovered him, which led to Cecil becoming a butler in the White House.
It’s an interesting time -- an era of civil unrest -- for the mostly black White House staff. Segregation of Southern Blacks has reached a fever pitch, and groups like the Black Panthers and Freedom Riders are creating riots.
At work, Cecil is always a quiet servant obeying the first lesson he learned from his supervisor Freddie (Colman Domingo) -- who warned him, “There is no room for politics in the White House, and you hear nothing, you see nothing.’’
At home, Cecil is not much different. He’s always tired, and his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) is lonely and not impressed with his job. She manages to raise their two boys, Louis (David Oyelowo) and Charlie (Elijah Kelly). But then her absence from the party life and lack of attention from her husband results in an affair with a neighbor (Terrence Howard). She also becomes friends with a bottle of booze.
Presidents come and presidents go while Cecil works his way up the ladder. He learned well from the prior head butler (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and his second-in-command (Lenny Kravitz). By now Louis is ready for college. Although mom and dad want him to go somewhere close by, he’s appalled at the treatment of the blacks and wants to go down south where he’s with his own people. When Louis gets involved with the Freedom Riders and the Panthers, he creates horror for his mom and a never-ending worry for Cecil.
Whitaker gives a tour-de- force performance as the butler and is sure to get attention come Oscar time. As Cecil, he emits nerves of steel, yet with moistened eyes when he must carry a tray of coffee or tea into a room of white politicians who openly discuss their disgust of the blacks as if he’s a lampshade in the room. Whitaker also convinces us that his character believes he has no options on the home front. He understands his wife is unhappy with him — but knows he must keep his position.