Is brownface acceptable in new HBO show ‘Jonah From Tonga’?


Chris Lilley as Ja’mie, the title character of his HBO series “Ja’mie: Private School Girl.” (Ben Timony/HBO)

Blackface in American television is widely accepted as a crude and racist, something no one with knowledge of the legacy of Al Jolson or “Birth of a Nation” would dare go near.

But what if the issue is brownface, played by a white Australian, in a show produced and first aired in Australia, where the minorities in question are not black Americans, but Polynesian Tongans?

That’s the issue at hand for HBO, which is airing a six-part mockumentary created and written by comedic actor Chris Lilley called “Jonah From Tonga,” based on a character Lilley created and first played in his show “Summer Heights High” and reprised in his spin-off, “Ja’mie: Private School Girl.” Lilley’s characterization of Jonah sparked accusations of racism from the Tongan community in the United States and allies who want to see the show pulled from HBO’s programming.

It’s not just that Lilley is in brownface, topped with a curly wig, but that his portrayal of the 13-year-old Jonas, who Bustle described “astonishingly lewd every chance he gets,” is akin to minstrelsy. The 39-year-old Lilley chooses to portray Jonah and his Tongan cohorts as dumb (Jonah is failing school), savage gang members and misogynistic bullies in contrast to their civilized white classmates. The show titles are rendered in a stereotypical, generic Tiki typeface carved from wood.

Writing for the Huffington Post, Cleo Paskal detailed the show’s many social transgressions:

Jonah’s all ‘Tongan’ school dance group is called Fobba-licious (from FOB — Fresh Off the Boat). When Jonah inevitably gets sent to juvenile detention he forms another group: Juvi-licious — helpfully showing the viewers the smooth transition from immigrant to criminal.

In lock-up, Lilley introduces us to another Australian racist stereotype and term. The violent criminal ‘Abos’ (for Aboriginal Australian). The brown Islanders and brown Abos fight each other while the kindly white guards try to keep the peace.

“He’s painted a picture not only to look like one, but some stereotypes that are very offensive to our Tongan community, which does not represent the values and virtues that we have as Tongans,” Tevita Kinikini, an academic adviser of Pacific Islander programs at the University of Utah, said in an interview with KSL TV. “For him to create a character which disrespects women and girls and elders is a disappointment. It’s not right, and it’s not true,” he said, shaking his head. “Our values are of respect, of family, of charity. We’re a God-fearing people.”

“Jonah From Tonga” is scheduled to air in August — and so far HBO has yet to make statement on the matter or pull the show from its programming.

John Birmingham of the Sydney Morning Herald had a different take on Lilley and Jonah:

Himself a former inmate of endless remedial classes at school, Lilley, isn’t mocking his subjects as much as trying to understand and explain them by osmosis. For the dimmer kiddies in the audience, there are sympathetic guides such as the long-suffering Mr Joseph, who runs the ‘Lazarus’ program (back from the dead, geddit?) at the Holy Cross High School. Driven to explosive violence at least once an episode, the ex-soldier has great insight and patience with Jonah and friends, explaining to camera: ‘They’re teenaged boys. The decision-making part of their brains hasn’t fully developed. It’s why they do such f—ed up things sometimes.’

A spokesman for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, where the show originally aired, defended the program, telling news.com.au that while the program “plays with stereotypes,” it’s “doing so to make an observation about the narrow-minded attitudes expressed by some of its characters, including Jonah’s own.”

So far, more than 3,500 people have signed a Change.org petition asking HBO to yank the show. A Facebook page created with the same purpose in mind has more than 1,100 “likes.”

You can see the trailer for “Jonah From Tonga” here:

 

 

h/t KSL TV

 

Soraya Nadia McDonald covers arts, entertainment and culture for the Washington Post with a focus on race and gender issues.
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