By Zachariah Bryan
Northwest Asian Weekly
That’s the question being asked of Australian Comedian Chris Lilley’s new HBO mockumentary, “Jonah from Tonga.” While some critics say it’s a clever satire on youth, others say that the depiction of the Tongan people is offensive.
The show started airing on Aug. 8 on HBO, but before people could even set their DVRs, Asian and Pacific Islander groups had already started calling for the show to be shut down.
“Such over-the-top ‘brownface’ is an affront to the proud Tongan people, and given the lack of any other depictions of Tonga or its people in the United States, the show can seriously damage the perception and self-image of Tongan Americans,” said Daniel Mayeda, co-chair of the Asian Pacific Media Coalition in a statement against “Jonah from Tonga.”
“Jonah from Tonga” follows the title character, 14-year-old Jonah Takalua, played by a white, 39-year-old Lilley dressed up in brownface and a curly-haired wig. Jonah, a troublemaking teen that nobody can seem to get a handle on, was kicked out of Summer Heights High and was taken back to Tonga by his family, who would then ship Jonah to a Catholic school in Sydney, Australia in an attempt to mend him.
Long story short, Jonah remains a crude, immature teenager who loves sex jokes, hassling the red-haired kids, spraying graffiti, and getting into all manner of trouble. Despite the supporting cast’s attempts at intervention, Jonah has a hard time becoming a nice, appropriate kid.
Perhaps no one describes Jonah better than his uncle Mamafu in the opening of the first episode, which takes place on an island of Tonga.
“Everything was happy. It was a peaceful place here until Jonah came along. Jonah’s like a f—ing idiot. He uses swear languages most of the time. He’s very annoying. No one likes him here,” Mamafu said.
Lilley’s depiction of the Tongan people, particularly Jonah, has not gone over well with many Asian and Pacific Islander groups in America.
A change.org petition, which has received nearly 10,000 supporters as of press time, asked HBO to not “import someone else’s racism” and “slander a whole nation.”
In the petition, Tongan Americans Sione Latu and Jarom Vaha’i writes, “All of the teenage ‘Tongan’ boys in the show are low achievers, gang members, or in jail. Much of the ‘comedy’ is derived from Jonah’s acts of violence, sexual aggression, ignorance, and profanity. Jonah swears at his sister and his father. He is extremely disrespectful to teachers. He is sexually suggestive to his aunt and a nun. His father swears during prayers. His sister swears at him. All of this is deeply offensive in Tongan culture in which respect for elders and women are core pillars. Tonga is a devoutly religious country, very family-oriented, with one of the highest PhD rates per capita.”
However, not everyone thinks Lilley’s depiction of the Tongan people should be pooh-poohed so much. Some people, such as the Australian-based New Daily’s Giles Hardy, heralds Lilley as a rare comedic genius.
Giles writes, “There are some comedians, some of the best, who stand and stare at the edges of polite society. They don’t look out, but in. They tug on the threads. They question the assumptions. They challenge us. They force society to laugh in recognition at an unacknowledged reality and while it laughs, to engage in some healthy introspection. That is what Lilley does. And he is one of a handful of comedians in the world who do so.”
Lilley has tangled with controversial roles before. In the series “Angry Boys,” he put on blackface to play the African American rapper S.Mouse and he put on yellowface to play the Japanese tiger mom Jen Okazaki.
In an interview with New York-based vulture.com, Lilley acknowledged that he was often the target of criticism in regards to his more controversial roles. But, he said, his act has always been to play multiple characters, and he is not willing to shy away from a character just because he or she happens to be Japanese, African American, or a troublemaking Tongan teenager.
“If I thought it was funny, I don’t think I would be scared to do it,” he said in the interview. “I think I’m pretty brave with putting myself out there, and looking stupid and doing things that are potentially offensive.”
“Racist and offensive portrayals fuel intolerance and bullying. ‘Jonah from Tonga’ is attractive to young audiences that cannot distinguish between satire and a racist joke,” said Priscilla Ouchida, executive director of JACL. (end)
Zachariah Bryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.