“Jonah from Tonga”: HBO forgets the first rule of brownface

Chris Lilley's "Jonah From Tonga" is a satire, but it's hard to figure out what exactly it's trying to say

Topics: brownface, blackface, jonah from tonga, HBO, chris lilley, diversity, Racism,

"Jonah from Tonga": HBO forgets the first rule of brownfaceChris Lilley in "Jonah From Tonga" (Credit: BBC)

Despite protests, HBO is moving ahead with a show by controversial Australian comedian Chris Lilley, who, at 39, is the unlikely star of a mockumentary about a troubled 14-year-old boy from the Kingdom of Tonga named Jonah. The show, “Jonah From Tonga,” which debuted several months ago in Australia, presents Lilley — a white man — in brownface as a Tongan boy with behavioral problems, a penchant for dick jokes, and a massive crush on his cousin Melody. (I believe you can already see what the issues with this show are.)

Lilley’s fans are already familiar with Jonah Takalua, first seen in critically acclaimed mockumentary “Summer Heights High,” picked up by HBO from Australian TV in 2008 (another character spinoff, starring haughty teen girl Ja’mie, aired on HBO in 2013). His comedies have been influential in Australia and beyond, injecting slang like “Puck you, miss,” “quiche” and “ranga” into Australian lexicon. But even in “Summer Heights High,” the character of Jonah perpetuated stereotypes: writer Morgan Godfery, who has criticized “Jonah” as minstrelsy, recalled in the Guardian that after the popularity of “Summer Heights High,” “Suddenly, it was acceptable for white Kiwi kids to start fetishising Polynesians.”

So what, exactly, is “Jonah From Tonga,” supposedly a satire, trying to say? HBO’s press release says that the show takes “a humorous and brutally honest look at life in an average Australian public school,” but it’s clear both from the title and the show that race is a core part of this “humorous and brutally honest look.” The social circles in Jonah’s high school are defined by race; Jonah describes the various female cliques as “Chick fobs, Chick wogs, chick filos, chick curries, chick africans, chick rangos, and … ching-chongs.” And some portion of Jonah’s antics stem from feeling discriminated against: “Teachers at this school are so racist,” he declares in the season opener, and in a later episode, tells one of the rich white students, “Just cause you’ve got different colored hair than us doesn’t mean you own us.” Another teacher characterizes Pacific Islanders as “tricky kids” who are “hard to control,” confirming Jonah’s own feelings.

Almost universally, no one likes Jonah: He is described by his peers, his family and his teachers as “a fucking idiot,” “a very bully person,” who “thinks he’s 21, thinks he’s a gangster” who is “virtually illiterate.” His only friends are the so-called Fobba-liscious crew, a group of Tongan teenagers who enjoy singing, dancing and defying authority. Whatever meaningful observations on race this is meant to convey are lost when you remember (and it’s hard to forget) that we’re experiencing this not through the lens of a Tongan, but of a white guy pretending to be marginalized. And, if one can somehow detach the racism from “Jonah From Tonga” (one cannot), there is still the other glaring issue with the six-episode season: The incessant stream of dick jokes and exclamations of “homo!” are about as funny as watching a guy run into a wall repeatedly for 37 minutes. After about 10 minutes, you wonder why you’re still watching. (The show was a flop in Australia).

In an interview with Splitsider promoting “Jonah” this week, Lilley (who declined an interview with Salon) showed remarkably little insight into the racial boundaries he supposedly wants to push: “A lot of Pacific Islander kids are in prison in Australia for some reason, I don’t know why, but it’s a problem so I thought it would be cool to explore that idea that he was probably going to end up going to jail. And it seems extreme, the mentality, but it’s how it is in a lot of prisons in Australia with a lot of Pacific Islanders.”

Lilley doesn’t seek deeper understanding about the population he’s trying to portray, and yet he seems to believe he is accurately portraying them. Part of this “accuracy” includes hiring Tongans, some with almost no acting experience, to play characters in the show — but what does it mean that the principal Tongan, the one telling us his story, is actually white? He also told Splitsider, “I try to make my shows really accurate. I’ve always been interested in that part of the culture in Australia. I know a lot of people that have been to Tonga … I get to know the families and I think if they watch it and see how accurate it is, then it’s going to be funny for everyone.”

On top of the show’s totally oblivious approach, there is the more troubling issue of its use of brownface, that deeply offensive practice in which white men turn skin color into a costume in order to mock oppressed minority groups. Some modern shows and movies, like “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and “Tropic Thunder,” have attempted to tackle the taboo of blackface (the same practice as brownface), but they have done so (not without controversy) by making sure to mock people who think brownface or blackface is OK. If you are going to risk offending people with blackface, then the target of your joke should clearly be a white man’s ignorance — not a person’s minority status.

Sadly, Lilley’s show doesn’t even attempt to justify the risks of brownface; it has no self-awareness at all. In a 2011 interview with Vulture over his (also pretty offensive) show “Angry Boys,” Lilley actually said that people who are sensitive about blackface are falling into a “trap,” and that by portraying it, he’s doing something revolutionary:

Part of what I like to do is to push the boundaries and try new things. When I came up with the idea of the boys’ heroes on the wall, I thought, Well, they’re going to be into hip-hop. They’re going to want a rapper to come to their party, so I have to play a black guy. And I just thought, It’s going to provoke people, it’s going to be headlined — and certainly everyone in Australia fell into that trap. It was all over the place, like, “Blackface! He’s doing it!” Like, Australians definitely don’t walk around dressed up in blackface going “Ha-ha.” We’re exposed to American culture and stuff, so we get it. I think I wanted to do it because I thought it was a challenging, new, interesting idea, and mostly I just thought it was a really funny character. I think once you get through 30 seconds of S.Mouse you realize there’s more to the character than just a blackface joke. Like, obviously that’s not the joke. You see that he’s this vulnerable guy who’s living at home with his dad and he gets exposed by the documentary for not being the big tough guy he’s making himself out to be. There’s a lot more going on. It’s a character. The funny thing is, I played a Chinese student in “We Can Be Heroes,” I played a Tongan boy in “Summer Heights High,” and I play a Japanese woman also in “Angry Boys,” but the only one that people talk about is S.Mouse. It’s kind of funny that there’s only certain races that it’s an issue — yes, it’s that history with blackface — but, I don’t know. There’s no comparison. I think it’s a bit stupid that you would shut yourself off to being able to do that.

Blackface, due to the systematic oppression of black people by pretty much the entire world, rings perhaps a louder alarm for S.Mouse than Lilley’s other characters, but all of his racially based (of which there are many) characters perpetuate stereotypes. You may want to laugh at S.Mouse’s antics, but you can’t avoid that you’re laughing at a garish caricature of a black man whose blackness is supposed to be his most salient quality. That’s racist.

The Tongan community definitely thinks so of Jonah, with a Change.org petition asking Lilley to “Cease discriminating against the Tongan Community” that gained nearly 1,000 signatures. “The Voice” contestant Prinnie Steven, of Polynesian descent, spoke out over its original airing in Australia, saying, “I have always despised the stereotypes that society put upon us as Tongans/Polynesian people.”

While this show is a greater disservice to Tongans in Australia, this type of caricature is just as harmful in America, where our only mainstream knowledge about the Polynesian culture now consists of Lilley’s character. It’s disappointing that HBO, a network that is often considered the gold standard of television (and one that is trying to improve its record on diversity), will air “Jonah From Tonga” tonight. It’s a step back for this community, as the only thing worse than not being represented on the screen is being represented by a person who thinks he can speak for you.

Prachi Gupta

Prachi Gupta is an Assistant News Editor for Salon, focusing on pop culture. Follow her on Twitter at @prachigu or email her at pgupta@salon.com.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows


Loading Comments...