Jeffrey Wright is the new 'narrator voice'
The documentary opens with the explosion of a firework and the silhouetted surge of riot police. A health-care worker crumples to the floor in despair in an empty hallway. Over the images, an audibly-anguished initial interviewee calls it tragic, absolutely tragic what has happened to this country.
Then out of the chaos comes a second disembodied speaker, instantly identifiable as "The Narrator" for his affectless — and familiar, if not immediately placeable — voice. "Americans have never felt so afraid and vulnerable," the man intones dramatically. "But what if the worst is yet to come, with no one in charge planning to help us?"
It's not Sam Elliott or Morgan Freeman, although the deep, gravely rumble might call them to mind. Rather, it's the man who just might usurp them both as the next great American Narrator Voice: Jeffrey Wright.
Vice TV's new six-part docuseries, While the Rest of Us Die: Secrets of America's Shadow Government, is Wright's latest narration project, though it is neither his breakout nor his seminal work. But no matter: You don't become one of the great Narrator Voices of the English language with a lone memorable job anyway. To become recognizably a Narrator, you must be, first and foremost, prolific. People must hear your voice and instantly recognize you as that guy who does all the voice-overs. You must narrate ads for political candidates, and documentaries about serious subjects. You probably need to be a man. And it doesn't hurt to voice God, if you get the chance — the greatest disembodied, authoritative voice of them all.
Wright is well on his way. Though admittedly, to a certain set of people who know the actor only as Belize from HBO's Angels in America, that might come as a surprise: Belize's outsize personality in the play would imply an actor too, perhaps, expressive to be a great narrator. But in recent years, his deep voice has been the dependable guide in documentaries like 2014's Mass Extinction: Life at the Brink for the Smithsonian Channel, and the trustworthy salesman pitching Dell Technologies in commercials. Even his casting as Bernard in Westworld seems to be an acknowledgement of the authorial and commanding associations made with his voice.
Partially, that's the fortune of genetics. Lower voices are associated with competence and authority, and Wright checks the box: The actor is "gravel-voiced," has a "deep, thoughtful baritone," "a voice made for radio," a "velvety, stentorian voice," one that is "full of authority and gravity," "resonant [and] sandpapery," and perfect for "professorial pronunciations." But memorable narrators also have voices that are unmistakable; think of Sam Elliott's beef-selling drawl; Garrison Keillor's grandfatherly readings; or Morgan Freeman's magisterial rumble. The best of all have voices that tap into American archetypes — the cowboy, the wise sage — evoking something that reaches beyond mere words and intonations. Wright is still figuring out his own niche; he's young compared to the great American narrators, and has time to grow into his role. But it seems almost certain he'll be less folksy than his predecessors, more of a cerebral, load-bearing hero for our modern world.
To be fair, Wright has also put in the work to cultivate this. He possesses the deliberate enunciation of a stage actor, a way of speaking that makes you lean in to listen. His voice also has a certain musicality, perhaps inspired by his grandparents from North Carolina and Virginia. Unsurprisingly, he speaks about acting in musical terms, too: "As an actor, I've always had an ear for language and so the language of the blues always spoke to me," he told Black Film while working on 2008's Cadillac Records, in which he performed (and did his own singing) as Muddy Waters. More recently, speaking to Backstage about acting in Westworld, he said: "Whether they're narrative notes or emotional notes or thoughts … it's kind of all symphonic. You're playing music together and you each have an instrument and you try to harmonize and build tension and release." Perhaps his great voice is owed most of all to being a great listener; addressing the accent he used for Peoples Hernandez in 2000's Shaft, Wright said he was inspired by "one particular Dominican friend whose use of language I always really dug, as well as the music of his voice."
The payoff has been the kind of proliferation that turns the occasional voice actor into a bona fide Narrator Voice. In addition to narrating While the Rest of Us Die, Wright voiced the first digital ad of Joe Biden's presidential campaign (to emphasize the category that puts him in, Elliott also voiced a 2020 Biden campaign ad). Wright likewise narrated a tribute video by WarnerMedia to health-care workers during the pandemic, and a documentary on voter suppression. Even his dramatic roles are getting subsumed by the attention paid to his voice, like when he speaks as Commissioner Gordon in the dark trailer for The Batman ("Jeffrey Wright reading Batman Year One ASMR now please" one Redditer demanded). And while Wright might not yet have been credited as the literal voice of God, he is set to narrate Marvel's forthcoming animated series What If…? as The Watcher, a character that is a "non-earthly being who observes all things" and "occasionally may or may not intervene with the doings of earthlings." Watch out, Morgan Freeman.
The best indication of all, though, that Wright is well on his way to being the pre-eminent Narrator Voice is that he's already being used in adjacent satire. Freeman, for example, has poked fun at himself by doing a straight-faced reading of the definition of "twerk," while Elliott has read Lady Gaga lyrics using his Ram commercial voice. Such gags are funny not because of what the actors are reading, but because their voices loan the unserious material a contrasting dignity. Wright, meanwhile, has narrated for The Daily Show a sober "tribute video" to Donald Trump — and the implication of his own voice as one widely agreed to be best suited for refined moments is what elevates the gag.
There is a danger to becoming a Narrator Voice, though. At a certain point, it doesn't take a Daily Show skit to make the self-importance of the voice comical. "Throwing Morgan Freeman narration on top of [the Transcendence trailer] to make it seem more portentous feels cheap, and after years of parodic overuse, it might not even be effective anymore," Slate warned in 2013 (well before, it bears mentioning, Freeman's more recent disgrace). "Perhaps we need to respect the sanctity of Freeman's magnificent pipes a little more."
Wright ought to heed the warning. Yes, a narrator must be prolific to the point that casual listeners immediately recognize his voice as one of authority — a desired response of, oh yes, it's that guy again, I trust this voice. But too much of a good thing might make a Narrator Voice one of unintended mockery. While the Rest of Us Die wavers on this line; some of the writing and images are already so dramatic that throwing Wright's narration on top of the rest seems like comical overkill.
But that's the ironic burden of becoming a Narrator Voice: Sometimes you grow so prominent that you threaten not to be heard at all.