The Japanese American Citizens League said Friday that it is “disturbed” by HBO’s decision to air a new Australian “mockumentary” comedy series, “Jonah from Tonga.”
In the series, a white Australian actor, Chris Lilley, performs in brown makeup and a wig to depict Jonah, a young Tongan teen living in Australia.
“Jonah and his Tongan peers are portrayed as disrespectful, aggressive, and delinquent,” the JACL said in a statement. “Numerous scenes in the series mock or misrepresent Tongan culture and customs. Although styled as a comedy, there is nothing clever or funny about the harmful and offensive stereotypes perpetuated by ‘Jonah from Tonga.’
“Too often, bigotry and racism are employed in the pursuit of humor; when done correctly, satire can be a powerful weapon for revealing and skewering the irrationality and absurdity of the racist ideas. Yet the juvenile and crude characterizations in ‘Jonah from Tonga’ only reveal Lilley’s deep ignorance and disrespect for the Tongan people.
“Whether the content of this series is acceptable elsewhere, it is an affront to the sensibilities of American audiences who understand that honoring diversity implies a healthy respect for the dignity of all cultures.
“The JACL is disturbed that HBO would condone such a racist and offensive show and urges HBO to pull ‘Jonah from Tonga’ from its lineup.”
Lilley’s character previously appeared in another show, “Summer Heights High,” in which he was expelled from school.
The producers of “Jonah from Tonga” describe it as “an adventurous journey into the life of 14-year-old rebellious schoolboy Jonah Takalua, his family, friends and the crew of teachers and counselors who are exhaustively trying to help him channel his seemingly limitless energy into bigger and brighter things.”
The cast includes Tama Tauli’i as Jonah’s brother, Isaia Noa as his father, Linda Horan as his aunt, Jane Reupena-Niko as his cousin, Eigawe Hunt as his sister, and Tevita Manu as his uncle.
The show has elicited protests from members of Australia’s Pacific Islander communities. Prinnie Stevens, a former contestant on “The Voice Australia,” posted on Facebook, “’I have always despised the stereotypes that society put upon us as Tongans/Polynesian people.”
Re: John Count. Chris Lilley himself has repeatedly said in interviews he is not trying to make some larger point. Recent examples:
Chris Lilley Interview: “There are a lot of guys in dresses in Australia…”, Steven Mackenzie, Big Issue (London), 4 July 2014.
Steven Mackenzie: Your shows are always set in schools. Are you trying to say something about education? Do you have a message?
Chris Lilley: No, not really.
Steven Mackenzie: Ja’mie and Jonah are dealing with certain issues. Do the shows encourage kids who relate to them to play up or realise they’re not alone?
Chris Lilley: A bit of all of that. It probably encourages kids to be naughtier. Teachers come up to me a lot and say thanks for giving permission for my kids to call me this and swear at me. That’s the fun bit for me.
Q&A: Chris Lilley on drag, blackface, teenage girls & confrontational comedy, Eric Spitznagel, Esquire, 14 November 14, 2013.
Esquire: You’ve been accused in the past of being racially insensitive.
Chris Lilley: Oh yeah.
Esquire: You’ve done characters like a Japanese mother and a black rapper. And some people found it racist. Do you feel misunderstood?
Chris Lilley: I get upset. But I try to block it out. I don’t read a lot of stuff.
Esquire: Like reviews?
Chris Lilley: Or whatever. But you still hear when people get angry. Especially after Summer Heights High. Jonah talked about rangas and redheads, and that’s probably the number-one thing that people were upset about.
Chris Lilley: It’s short for orangutans. I still get a lot of redheads coming up to me, saying, “You’ve made my life hell.” Well, it’s not my fault. People were making fun of redheads before I came along.
Its racist, its prejudice,its dehumanization of a culture .A culture of family, of religious respect,of love, of preservation of culture custom and tradition. If that’s comedy it promotes racial stereotypes guess that’s accepted as norm in white Australia but as an American of Samoan bloodlines this does not in anyway represent Tonga or Tongans this show is ignorant and it misrepresents Pacific youth in a most non favorable way and in the most disrespectful of manners and social acceptance of normal acceptable human behavior. This is racial viewing 2014, thank you and respect to our Japanese Family tour support is appreciated.
I think you’ve got to look at what the comedy is trying to achieve, like with the music video for ‘The Cream’s Gonna Fly Tonight’ – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Mg17lVhfVo. That’s all about reversing the traditional male/female roles in pop music videos.