This is as much a story of one extraordinary life as it is a history of the struggle for civil rights in our country. The human story is of a poor black child of sharecroppers on a southern cotton plantation who having witnessed his father being shot and killed by the same man who had just raped his mother and who then has his first experience of kindness from a white person when the matriarch of the plantation brings him into the house to be trained as a house boy, where he has to serve the very man who killed his father.
His training requires performing all of his tasks perfectly and gracefully with the most important admonishment - to be “invisible”. After the hardship of working in the fields this feels like extremely good luck. He takes in everything and thrives in his new role and becomes accomplished enough that when he is grown up he sets off on his own. Having no resources and no references and no idea of the world outside of the plantation he heads to Washington DC and encounters the harsh realities of a still segregated south. But his training and some luck enable him to find work as a waiter in increasingly better establishments until he is noticed by a highly-placed White House staff member and recruited to become a waiter in the White House.
As his skills and position improve he marries, has two sons and achieves a comfortable middle class life for his family. And yet all is not well, the demands on his time and the confidentiality requirements leave his wife feeling neglected and resentful, which causes her to act out and drink too much. His eldest son is silently seething over the glaring racial inequalities which are being perpetuated by the very government for whom his father is so faithfully serving and which so many of his generation are passionately fighting to correct. When his son decides to go south to Fisk College in Tennessee his father is terrified for his safety. Little does he realize that his son will willingly be putting himself in harm’s way by joining the civil rights move- ment, sitting-in, protesting, and getting arrested. This drives them apart for many painful years. Even after his younger son joins the service to go to Vietnam and is killed within months Cecil’s loyalty to all of the presidents which he has served remains steadfast.
It is truly gut-wrenching to see these two trajectories play out and totally believable. The father’s reality is based on such abject deprivation that all of his hard-won gains are almost beyond imagination. He has nothing but gratitude. His son, having never struggled for the bare basics, has an entirely different point of reference and can only see the obvious hypocrisy of those who refuse to see the tyranny of racism, including his father.
The casting reads like a Woody Allen Movie. Forest Whitaker, in the lead is sterling and beautifully matched by Oprah Winfrey, as his wife in a subtle and complex role. The line up of big name cameos playing the presidents includes, John Cusack, Liev Schreiber, Alan Rickman, Robin Williams and Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan. It is very much an ensemble piece with the colleagues of Cecil’s in service in the White House played by Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz and the salacious next door neighbor played by Terrence Howard. The writing is so good and the acting is so convincing and well- directed that it never resorts to easy sentimentality. It is nevertheless hugely powerful and moving. It is one of the best big films I have seen recently.