There’s a scene in Spike Lee’s new joint, “BlacKkKlansman,” in which the main character, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), is on the phone with Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace).
The film is based on the true story of Stallworth, the first black detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department, who organized a sting operation against the KKK. In the movie, Stallworth asks Duke how he knows he’s speaking to a white man and not a black man. Duke says he can tell Stallworth is a white man by his voice, using as an example the way he says “are.” Black people, according to Duke add an extra syllable, making it “are-uh.”
Stallworth didn’t dramatically alter his regular voice when speaking with Klan members. But to Duke, he had a “white voice.”
Washington called it something else.
“Ron definitely didn’t have a white voice,” the actor told HuffPost. “He had to put on a hate voice to invite it, to infiltrate it. There’s words — as he’d say, ‘trigger words’ — he used to communicate to be able to pull this sting operation off. I do believe in that, just like people can speak Spanish, people can speak different languages, there is a hate language too [that] is specific to racism. And that’s what people are going to hear in abundance in this film.”
How Stallworth speaks is a vehicle that carries a lot of the irony in the film. Early on, the police chief doubts Stallworth can pull off the sting, saying, “They’re going to know the difference between how a white man speaks and a Negro.” They don’t. They become the butt of the joke in the film, though the threat of their existence is never forgotten.
Until Lee pitched it to him, Washington didn’t know about Stallworth’s story. Washington spoke to Stallworth each week in preparation for the film, studying the cadence of his voice, how he carried himself as a police officer, what it meant to be a black man in predominantly white Colorado Springs in the 1970s and how he used those trigger words to infiltrate the KKK.
The topic of “talking white” or having a “white voice” isn’t unique to this period film and spans generations. Stereotypes of how society believes black people are supposed to sound have created this monolithic view of how we communicate. Make no mistake, there are distinct differences in the words and inflections black people use to communicate with one another compared with the ways white people talk to one another. But in the mainstream, speaking what’s known as proper English has been synonymous with being white. It’s a superficial gauge that society has used to assess the intelligence, income and social status of black people.
Like Stallworth, Washington said he gets “a little defensive” about what a “white voice” is.
“I went to bar mitzvahs as a kid. I had a lot of classmates who are Jewish. I had family in Carolina who were very hood and talked differently in this sort of Southern cadence. I went to a historically black college. I spent summers in Italy as well since I was 7. So what am I supposed to sound like?” he said.
The Jordan Peele–produced “BlacKkKlansman” provides the first the lead role for Washington, a former pro football player. He made his film debut as a kid in Lee’s “Malcolm X,” in which his father, Denzel Washington, stars. John David Washington said he was in a “privileged position” through this film to be able to shine a light on the voices that often go unheard.
“So many people out there who don’t get their voices heard through stories, through cinema, so I have to honor that the same way I honor God ... I have to do things the right way,” he said. “I’ll be a walking contradiction if I wasn’t aware of the opportunity I have to represent these people, so I have to make sure I don’t skip any steps.”