Cecil Gaines, a young boy, is raised by his subservient parents on a cotton plantation in 1920s Macon, Georgia. One day, the farm’s temperamental owner, Thomas Westfall, rapes Cecil’s mother, Hattie Pearl. Cecil’s father, Earl, confronts Westfall, and is shot dead.
Cecil is taken in by Annabeth Westfall, the estate’s caretaker, who reassigns Cecil to being a house servant instead.
In his teens, he leaves behind the Westfall plantation and his mother who has been mute since the incident. One night, Cecil breaks into a pastry shop and is, unexpectedly, hired by the owners. While working in the shop, he acquires skills from master servant, Maynard. After several years, Maynard recommends Cecil for a position in Washington D.C. which Cecil gladly accepts.
Ultimately in 1957, he is hired by the White House during Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration, where White House maître d’ Freddie Fallows shows Cecil the grounds and introduces him to head butler Carter Wilson and co-worker James Holloway. Working in the White House, he witnesses first hand Eisenhower’s reluctance to use troops to enforce school desegregation in the South, then the President’s resolve to uphold the law by ordering to racially integrate a high school in Little Rock. Arkansas.
Cecil marries Gloria, who had been a maid at the same hotel, and they have two children: Louis and Charlie. The Gaines family celebrates Cecil’s new occupation with their closest friends and neighbors, Howard and Gina.
Louis, the eldest son, becomes a first generation university student at Fisk University in Tennessee. Cecil is hesitant about this because he thinks the South is too volatile and encourages Louis to enroll at Howard University. Louis joins a student program at Fisk to peacefully engage in a sit-in at segregated public places and is arrested. Furious, Cecil heads to Nashville where he confronts Louis for disobeying him. Gloria, feeling isolated from her husband, has an affair with the Gaines’ neighbor, Howard, and also becomes an alcoholic.
In 1961, after John F. Kennedy’s election, Louis and a dozen others are attacked by the Ku Klux Klan while traveling on the freedom riders bus. Cecil is informed of the incident by Kennedy, who subsequently delivers a national address proposing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Several months after the speech, Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas, Texas and his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, enacts the transformative legislation into law. As a goodwill gesture, Jackie Kennedy presents Cecil with one of the former president’s neckties before she leaves the White House.
In the late 1960s, after civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, Louis returns home and tells his family that he and a few others have founded a chapter of the radical organization called the Black Panthers. Aware of Richard Nixon’s plans to suppress the movement and upset at his son’s actions, Cecil orders Louis and his girlfriend, Carol, to leave his house. The Gaines’ other son, Charlie, confides to Louis that he plans to join American forces in the war in Vietnam, to which Louis admits that he wouldn’t attend his funeral if he were to be killed.
Indeed, a few months later, the Gaines family hold a funeral for Charlie, which Louis does not attend, much to the dismay of his enraged father. However, when the Black Panthers begin to espouse violence as the answer to racism, Louis leaves the organization and returns to college, earning his master’s degree in political science, and eventually winning a seat in Congress.
Meanwhile, Cecil’s professional reputation has grown to the point that in the 1980s, he is invited by Ronald and Nancy Reagan as a guest to a state dinner. Cecil realizes that the invitation was just for show, as Reagan plans to veto any Congressional sanctions against South Africa. Cecil does gain Reagan’s support in his years-long effort to have the black White House staff receive the same rate of salary and opportunities for career advancement as their white counterparts. When Cecil announces his resignation to the President, Reagan is visibly shaken, and admits that he considers Cecil to be family.
Gloria, wanting Cecil to mend his estranged relationship with Louis, reveals to him that Louis once told her that he loved and respected them both. Believing his son’s actions to be heroic rather than antagonistic, Cecil quits his job and joins Louis in a protest against South African apartheid.
The film then advances to Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, where an elderly Gloria dies shortly before Obama is elected as the nation’s first African-American president, a milestone which leaves Cecil and Louis in awe. The film ends with Cecil preparing to meet the inaugurated Obama in the White House.
We ALL are ONE!! We ALL are connected!!!
***I saw it today. There are no perfect words to describe this movie. I was 7 years old when the movie begins in 1957. I remember President Eisenhower ….. and the rest is history.
The movie is so well done and the actors, all, did such a fine and dedicated job. It brought to life all the history that is encompassed in this movie. I was there all along! My life almost flashed in front of my eyes.
It was hard to see the treatment of the black people at the hands of the whites, in the white world. There is the lesson in all of this …. we have come a long way but we still have a long way to go!!