What 'House of Lies' Says About Race in America

Don Cheadle as Marty Kaan in Showtime's House of Lies

In 2013, movie mogul Harvey Weinstein coined the term "the Obama Effect" to explain the uptick in black protagonists and films. From 12 Years a Slave to The Butler to Mandela to rom-coms like Best Man Holiday, Obama's presence in the White House has coincided with (or perhaps led to) a stronger black presence in movies and television. These films feature characters who are intelligent, morally upright and respectable — the kinds of heroes we can all get behind.

Enter Marty Kaan, Don Cheadle's character on Showtime's House of Lies. Morally upright is just about the last term to describe Marty. Not only does he acknowledge he's full of hot air, he fully embraces his role as a backstabbing, smooth-talker extraordinaire. In Marty's cutthroat world of management consulting, only the fit survive. Marty does what he needs to win at a crooked game. While there have been plenty of white characters like Marty, there has never been a black iteration at the center of a show. Marty is, for lack of a better word, a douchebag, but he's also loveable. He's selfish, but oddly principled. He's complicated in a way that until now, only white leads on the small screen had been. His mucky presence on television might be the most positive result of the Obama Effect yet. 

On the heels of the Richard Sherman debate our country is once again grappling with issues of respectability politics, and Marty is anything but a cut and dry hero. He makes complex choices with complex repercussions. One such choice is advocating for his gender-questioning son to be the female lead in a school play — and although he's squeamish about the situation fights tooth and nail with nebbish school administrators as if he's going up against business tycoons. Marty further complicates those complex choices, like when his efforts fail and a female student gets the lead, Marty turns lemons into lemonade and has sex with the girl's mother in a van. It's the kind of moment that you're not sure what to make of and its presence on television is an important statement.

Marty Kaan is difficult to box in or pin down as a character, and historically and culturally we have a tradition of trying to fit black men into certain predetermined stereotypes. Those who defended Sherman spoke of his Stanford education, his insightful breakdown of NFL plays and his incredible rise to fame from his hometown of Compton, Calif. While those facts were admirable responses, they were an example of people trying to pigeonhole him as a certain type of man. President Obama has also dealt with people trying to pin him down and paint him as one type of black man or another. Detractors harped on Reverend Wright and birth certificates while supporters pushed back with the hefty weight of his Harvard Law credentials.

I could offer up a similar defense of Marty: a highly-educated, whip-smart and successful businessman who now at the start of the third season has opened up his own consulting shop, leaving his old firm in epic fashion. It's the kind of self-empowerment and self-determination that those in the black community thirst to see affirmed on screen. However, Marty only achieves this by holding a press conference co-signing a classist and predatory housing loan practice in Chicago. He's complicated. He makes choices, he feels guilt, he is not specifically one type of a man or specifically another. 

As House of Lies enters its third season, the show has finally settled into a groove and found its authentic voice. Marty has his warts, but he has a conscience too. Perhaps he always did. Most importantly, though, Marty Kaan's character is not just held up as an ideal or immoral representation of a black man. He is simply allowed to be human.