Elvis, Donny Hathaway and the Daft Hollywood Paradigm

by Julian Cola

Hollywood is one of U.S. imperialism’s greatest assets, hyping a world in which all things “super” are white – and speak English. “Media exploitation had famished many of my students’ outlook to humanity's potential for achievement and excellence, reducing it to an almost exclusive white hero and heroine archetype.” Critical analysis doesn’t stand a chance against the mega-fantasy. “White superiority is the primordial thread holding this model intact.”

Elvis, Donny Hathaway and the Daft Hollywood Paradigm

by Julian Cola

“Tinseltown has managed to run achievement and success through a vacuum that meticulously filters out people of color.

“Teaching English in Brazil is rad! Maaan, teachin’ English in Brazil is straight fa real, know-what-I’m-sayin’? Language schools hire native speakers at the drop of a hat. You can organize private classes – you get paid – respect – you can get yo swerve on – life is sweet!!” The perks seemed endless. I was in Brazil and in desperate need of extra cash. Time to put on my best English instructor getup and pontificate about the conjugating intricacies of the verb to be as if I actually gave a rat’s ass.

Several years later unadulterated soul whirled in a private English classroom. Donny Hathaway was wrapping up his masterpiece live performance of A Song For You. His debonair voice and melodic, harp-like strumming of the piano mesmerized my students. The music eventually faded into an uproar of applause. Class had begun. “Do you know the artist?” I asked. One guy quickly raised his hand as if he were absolutely sure of himself, no doubt in his mind whatsoever, and responded, “Elvis.”

Albeit a response that would provoke consternation in any Donny Hathaway fan, mistaking his voice for Elvis was no reason for me to quit my English teaching gig. This was my bread and butter, an economic lifeline during my extended stay in Brazil. Nevertheless, this grave infraction was only a microcosm of a much larger atmosphere that shrouded my English classes in a recurring theme that I called DHP (Daft Hollywood Paradigm). Media exploitation had famished many of my students’ outlook to humanity's potential for achievement and excellence, reducing it to an almost exclusive white hero and heroine archetype. Also, tacit admission of guilt is preferable to naming the private school that hired me or capital city in which it was located.

“Private English classrooms become the playground for many of those who were born with a silver spoon in their mouth.”

These institutions, no matter what major metropolis they’re based in, are not the linguistic breeding grounds for an all-inclusive bunch. Seats are reserved for the sons and daughters of families who can pay private school fees. The record states that, in 2015, Brazil’s minimum wage was set at R$788 per month. Convert that amount to U.S. dollars on the 9th of December 2015 and the total is $211, barely enough to cover basic expenses such as food, housing, clothing, hygiene, transportation, and other daily necessities. For this reason, private English classrooms become the playground for many of those who were born with a silver spoon in their mouth. The only exception to this rule occurred during my English-teaching days in Salvador and a small town in the southern region of the state of Bahia. Afro-Brazilian culture prevailed in this northeastern state. I was given an opportunity to teach at a locally funded language school during my stay in Salvador. Neighboring students attended classes because they paid reduced tuition fees. In southern Bahia I taught English at a local, hole-in-the-wall restaurant prior to lunch hour. This joint had become my second home, a place where I could unwind, have a laugh and solid meal, and bear witness to the continued struggle and joy of people who’d been historically oppressed by this continental size country of endless contrasts. But I digress. Apart from my English-teaching experiences in Bahia, the Daft Hollywood Paradigm reigned supreme.

“Seats are reserved for the sons and daughters of families who can pay private school fees.”

The Daft Hollywood Paradigm bombards TV screens and movie theaters throughout Brazil. White superiority is the primordial thread holding this model intact. Protagonists of the structure valiantly defeat raging dragons; scale tall buildings; courageously battle evil no do-gooders from here to Pluto; save humanity and the planet from eminent destruction time and time again; solve every unsolvable mystery; demonstrate kindness and understanding on all human and non-human levels; woo women from here to the Great Wall of China; defeat entire tribes of fire-breathing mega-dragons; and, believe-you-me, that's just the start. Only on rare occasions does Tinseltown's rolodex land on people of color to play any role save the supporting character who either assists or hinders the benevolent progress reserved for George Clooney, Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, Jennifer Lawrence, Brad Pitt, Meryl Streep, Kate Winslet, and that's just the start. Once renowned as the empire where the sun never sets, British cinema has also made its fair share of contributions to the genre with films such as The Theory of Everything, The Last King of Scotland, the James Bond series, and, believe-you-me, that's just the start.

English is the lingua franca of the Daft Hollywood Paradigm. It's a linguistic metaphor that whiplashed far too many of my students. For them, learning English was a gateway to become accessible to the allure of a world that’s been whitewashed inside and out. The end result of being repeatedly fed a Hollywood and Hollywood-wannabe diet couldn’t have been much different. One would be hard-pressed to find a blockbuster film that depicts British and American imperialism fueling the spread of English. Maybe that’s why critical analysis had been dumped by the wayside whenever my students discussed Daft Hollywood Paradigm issues. Grasping the historical context in which their language of choice had become fashionable didn’t matter. Being willing disciples of the projection did. English was a means to a better job, improved educational opportunities, and advancement. Fine and dandy as that may be, Tinseltown has managed to run achievement and success through a vacuum that meticulously filters out people of color.

“Only on rare occasions does Tinseltown's rolodex land on people of color to play any role save the supporting character.”

Language apprehension is a wonderful conduit to self-realization. However, its transformative power is compromised when a majority of students have reached an advanced stage of acquiescence to discriminatory and racist models espoused in popular films and television programs. Whereas Walter White was revered for his scientific production of meth and quirky efforts to provide for his family in Breaking Bad, American Gangster showcased the ruthless other – a black man trafficking dope in military coffins and subordinating large swaths of the New York City Police Department. Believe-you-me, that’s just the start. English and imagery had repeatedly conveyed those messages, captured my students’ imagination long before they had signed up for class, and those who’d already been duped weren’t particularly interested to engage in counterarguments. It was as if the Daft Hollywood Paradigm had been consecrated in a holy grail that deflected all forms of debate and criticism.

The most disheartening aspect of having taught English in Brazil was that I'd rarely meet students who were interested to learn Tupi-Guarani. This is the primary indigenous language of Brazil. It preceded Portuguese colonization of the region. Though a vast number of Tupi-Guarani words are meshed within the Brazilian Portuguese lexicon, there's little incentive to learn the language of an ethnic group that's routinely depicted in corporate media as being uncouth, lazy savages who've yet to comprehend the meaning of private property or tune in to the latest Hollywood blockbuster.

“No. Elvis is not Donny Hathaway,” I replied. Students were somewhat bemused when I showed them a picture of the late musician. My English teachin’ days was straight comin’ to uh end. Who knows, maybe I'll return to Bahia one day.

Raised in the city of jazz, New Orleans, Julian Cola currently works as a freelance translator. He has a BA (cum laude) in Portuguese.