One of the things that works best for me about House of Lies is something that’s coming up in subsequent episodes: its intense bluntness about race and the racism that persists at the highest levels of corporate America. And it was exciting to hear Don Cheadle, who plays high-powered consultant Marty Kaan, and Glynn Turman, who plays his father Jeremiah, talk about the show’s racial politics—and to promise more explorations of those themes if they’re lucky enough to get a second season.
“I want to commend the producers, showtime, for taking on the elephant in the room. This show addresses racial situation like no other show,” Glynn Turman said at the House of Lies panel during Showtime’s presentations at the Television Critics Association press tour today. “From the very opening scene, it’s smack dab in your face. It has never been presented so up front in the history of television. This is a bold step in treating a black man like a person with dimensions…The reason you know it is he is the guy he’s playing. That’s a racial attack. That’s an attack on racism in order to bring the walls down in itself. So at every turn, this show is addressing something that is a taboo.”
And he’s right. Reverse racebending happens occasionally, but it’s hard to imagine another show that would take a book written by a white guy about skulduggery in the world of business and cast a black man in the lead role, and do it without comment.
But it’s not simply a matter of making Kaan black instead of white. This wasn’t so much an issue in the first episode, but the show is very blunt about demonstrating racism and calling it out. Among the things coming down the pike: a client mistaking every white member of Marty’s team for Marty before turning to the black man in the room, and a very honest conversation between Marty and an African-American recruit. I asked Cheadle about whether we need humor that exposes racism more than we need the gentle humor of reconciliation.
“I think the best way, sometimes to deal with things of that nature that have so much gravitas is to come at it sideways,” he told me, saying that making people laugh can open up conversations that might not be possible otherwise. “If you can find a comedic way in, it’s more difficult to do and it’s dangerous to because the subject matter is so fraught with perils and traps. But you can sometimes make even more headway than if you confront it head on.”
And in the scrum afterwards I asked him what it was like playing a role that—in his capacity as father to Roscoe, who may be questioning his gender identity and his sexual orientation— both pushes back against images of woman-headed African-American households and the idea that black communities are homophobic, one of the more unfortunate and difficult political memes of the last few years.
“It’s a real unconventional take on all of those sorts of tropes,” he told me. “Is even there another show on television with a black male lead? Anywhere? The fact that it even exists and the fact that we get to deal with things in the way we get to deal with them…is a new take, which is crazy in 2012, but it’s kind of a new take on all of that stuff…There’s a moment in one of the episodes where [Roscoe] comes to me and says ‘what do you do when you like a boy and a girl?’ And I’m like ‘I don’t know.’ Marty doesn’t know how to deal with it. He’s not sure what to do. I think if he didn’t have his father in his ear saying’ let him do what he wants to do, he’ll figure it out, he needs room to individuate,’ if he wasn’t giving him all that Jungian psychobabble, he’d be like, ‘like the girl.’…he’s just tying to understand and roll with the punches.”
No one show is going to roll back decades of reluctance to give black characters leading roles in movies and television shows. But Marty, Jeremiah, and Roscoe Kaan are all roles that feel like they’ve been delivered to us from a promising future.