Set against the tumultuous political backdrop of 20th century America, Academy Award® nominated director Lee Daniels' epic drama "Lee Daniels' The Butler" tells the story of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), an African American butler who serves at the White House during seven presidential administrations between 1957 and 1986.
Inspired by Wil Haygood's 2008 Washington Post article "A Butler Well Served by This Election" about the real life of former White House butler Eugene Allen, "Lee Daniels' The Butler" traces the dramatic civil rights struggles that ultimately made it possible for an African American to rise to the highest position in the White House with the election of Barack Obama in 2008.
Opening in the fiercely segregated South in 1926, young Cecil Gaines works with his family in the cotton fields of Macon, GA. The tragic death of his father at the hands of his employer opens up unexpected opportunities for a young and impressionable Cecil, who is then taught the duties of a house servant under the critical eye of the plantation's white matriarch. Armed with these new skills and concerned for his own life, Cecil sets out for a better life as a young man.
Struggling outside of the confines of the plantation, an act of desperation introduces Cecil to a much-needed father figure, who provides guidance and a job at a local hotel. Thriving under his tutelage, Cecil is encouraged to move to Washington, DC, to take a position at an elite hotel. Excelling there, Cecil is noticed by a White House administrator, who gives him the chance of a lifetime: a job as a butler at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, insuring a comfortable middle-class life for Cecil's wife Gloria (Oscar® nominee Oprah Winfrey) and sons Louis (David Oyelowo) and Charlie (Elijah Kelley), far from the cotton fields of the South.
While Presidents come and go, from Eisenhower through Reagan, Cecil and the rest of the butler staff remain, serving in the background as firsthand but silent witnesses to history and the inner workings of the Oval Office while the civil rights movement unfolds. Regardless of his personal opinions, Cecil remains fiercely committed to his duties at the White House, but tensions grow at home as his sons become affected by the social and political upheaval that characterized the 1960s and 70s. Louis chooses to attend college in the South so that he may become an active part of the burgeoning civil rights movement, participating in department store sit-ins and freedom rides - putting him in physical danger and widening his rift with Cecil. Charlie instead elects to work for change from within, enlisting to fight for his country in Vietnam. Facing these disruptions to her family, as well as Cecil's neglect as he tends to his First Family, Gloria turns to alcohol and the embrace of a neighbor. As he grapples with his family's actions and his own conscience, Cecil finds himself at the crossroads of previously unimaginable social change.
Through the eyes and emotions of the Gaines family, Daniels' film follows the changing tides of American politics and race relations; from the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, to the Freedom Riders and Black Panther movements, to the war in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal, Cecil experiences the effects of these events as both an insider and a family man. Drawn into conflict with his headstrong sons, eager to forge their own paths in a rapidly transforming world, Cecil's story is as universal as it is extraordinary, speaking to the way each generation attempts to define the American Dream.
With an incredible supporting cast that includes Yaya Alafia, Mariah Carey, John Cusack, Jane Fonda, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Terrence Howard, Elijah Kelley, Minka Kelly, Lenny Kravitz, James Marsden, Alex Pettyfer, Vanessa Redgrave, Alan Rickman, Liev Schreiber and Robin Williams, "Lee Daniels' The Butler" is a story about the resilience of one man, the growth of a nation, and the power of family.