In the nineteen-seventies, Richard Pryor mined his material—a trove of parody, mimicry, and mannerisms—from the chaos of America’s social scene. The poor and the nouveau riche, the conformists and the hipsters, the religious and the libertine: all were skewered alike. One of his favorite impressions was the white guy, whom he caricatured as a nebbish and a dullard, fumbling under the light weight of his unearned power. “I love when white dudes get mad and cuss, ’cause y’all some funny motherfuckers when you cuss,” Pryor said at the Terrace Theatre in Long Beach, a performance immortalized in the 1979 film “Richard Pryor: Live in Concert.” He hunches his shoulders, bugs out his eyes, and nods his head like a bobblehead figurine. It’s a great bit of physical comedy, but the key is his nasally “white voice”: “They be saying shit, like, ‘Yeah, come on, peckerhead! Come on, you fucking’ ”—and here he adds an Elmer Fudd-style speech impediment—“ ‘joik-off!’ ” You can hear flesh-and-blood white men roaring in the audience.
Whiteface—the act of reversing the minstrel—was an invention of nineteenth-century vaudeville, and it was sharpened by mid-twentieth-century theatre, in plays by Adrienne Kennedy and Douglas Turner Ward. Pryor’s comedy was a transgressive modernizing of the technique. There was little of anything like admiration in his performances; his white guy heaved to life from the belching indent in Archie Bunker’s couch and bleated like the corrupt white cops in blaxploitation satires. His caustic impersonations gave way to others by Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence, and Pryor’s keenest student, Dave Chappelle. The tireless brothers Shawn and Marlon Wayans almost deserve a nod for their labors in their preposterous “gender bender” movie “White Chicks,” but, by relying on prosthetics and gallons of acrylic paint, they overextended the gag. The others knew that whiteness could be conjured, and scorned, through the larynx alone.
Recently, two films, Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You” and Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman,” have borrowed “white voice” from the standup retinue and put it to sharp narrative ends. In “Sorry to Bother You,” Cassius Green, played by the willowy Lakeith Stanfield, has landed a job as a telemarketer in a bizarro Oakland. At first he flails, failing to sell any of the encyclopedias he’s supposed to peddle. Then a wizened co-worker, Langston, played by Danny Glover, offers him life-changing advice, which we see thud onto Cassius’s shoulders like a commandment: “Use your white voice.” White voice is an ideal that not even the white man can attain, Langston says: “It’s what they wish they sounded like, what they’re supposed to sound like.” Here is one of Riley’s more elegant theses: whiteness is a remote and impossible and crazy-making hope.
To represent Cassius’s white voice, Riley dubs Stanfield’s speech with that of David Cross, who on “Arrested Development” plays Tobias Fünke, a stunted member of the blockheaded upper class. Cross’s accent is of no geographic region; his tone is psychotically chipper. His voice is ease, entitlement, and customers on the other end of Cassius’s line gladly feed it their money. The voice also allows Cassius to become a “power caller” at the company, a position that, the viewer learns in time, is inseparable not merely from betraying but enslaving his brothers and sisters. The trick of “white voice,” a folkloric joke among black people, becomes, in Riley’s film, a path to self-debasement.
In “BlacKkKlansman,” John David Washington (pictured right) plays Ron Stallworth, a black police officer who doesn’t change his speaking voice on the phone with the Ku Klux Klan.
Photograph by David Lee / Focus Features
Lee and Riley tell stories set decades apart, but both directors have alighted on the telephone as a portal for infiltration. “BlacKkKlansman” is based on “Black Klansman,” a 2014 memoir by the retired policeman Ron Stallworth, who, in 1979, as the first black officer in Colorado Springs, Colorado, participated in an undercover operation within the ranks of the Ku Klux Klan. His assignment begins when he responds to a newspaper ad placed by the Klan; he phones the local chapter leader and says he wants to join. Lee’s dramatization is faithful to Stallworth’s real-life methods: John David Washington, who plays Stallworth, doesn’t change his speaking voice when talking with the Klan. (The actor has said that he spoke to Stallworth once a week while preparing for the role, so that he could better approximate the rhythms of his voice.)
Instead, Stallworth recognizes that “white voice” is a seductive fiction, like many of the customs of association cherished within the K.K.K. “They’re going to know the difference between how a white man speaks and a negro,” the police chief tells Stallworth. “How does a black man speak?” Stallworth retorts. Washington’s subtle verbal performance includes one conspicuous flourish, an accentuation of the “H” in “white”— “I love hwite America,” he pledges—which is apparently enough to enchant the awful fraternity. Lee writes the Klan as a collection of buffoons who nearly salivate while beholding their blackface scripture, D. W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation.” Though supposed connoisseurs of whiteness, they cannot detect an impostor in their midst. “I’m just happy to be talking to a true white American,” Topher Grace purrs, in the role of David Duke. He adds, in one phone call, “I can always tell when I’m talking to a negruh.” In “Sorry to Bother You, white voice is a dangerous intoxicant; in “BlackKkKlansman,” it is a stereotype the black man can deploy against its creators.
Both films acknowledge how, for the black social actor, the use of white voice can trigger the treacherous assimilation of the black bourgeoisie to the white status quo. After a while, Cassius Green starts to unconsciously slip into his seller’s patter, startling his friends and his lover, Detroit (Tessa Thompson). In “BlacKkKlansman,” you can hear Stallworth straining to speak “jive” while talking to his love interest, Patrice (Laura Harrier), a member of the Black Panther Party. Her friends seem to smell his unease with their political project, his secret status as a cop.
I wish that both directors had dwelled longer on these in-group tensions. Detroit is a delightful but haphazardly realized hypocrite of a character who runs a radical activist organization but uses her own Pan-European white voice to upsell her art to big buyers. Is this a selling out akin to Cassius’s? Riley doesn’t probe further; he’s too busy setting up the film’s lumbering sci-fi twist. In Lee’s film, the only black characters besides Stallworth are rendered as a singular, fist-raising mass. Lee concludes with his signature: a jolt of violent footage plucked from the news, which feels more concerned with a didactic directing of the “discourse” than with dramatic coherence.
Has the satire of white voice since Pryor’s peak lost some of its original shock? Has the liberal white audience acclimated to its barbs? It seems telling that the authors of some of the most popular recent lampoons of whiteness—Christian Lander, of “Stuff White People Like”; Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, of “Portlandia”—are not black themselves. The stereotype has become domesticated, meta-referential; it’s no longer rooted in subversion and offense. But Lee and Riley, whose films are righteously tuned to our era of bad-faith white victimization, seem keen on retrieving its power. Their critique, ultimately, is a moral reversal, one that has less to do with making the white man a stereotype than with giving the black one a sense of self.