Racism—just a laughing matter in Jonah from Tonga

Award-winning comedian Chris Lilley is back with six-part “mockumentary”, Jonah From Tonga, following the life of Year 9 student Jonah Takalua, who constantly finds himself in run-ins with his teachers and parents.

Jonah originated from his popular series, Summer Heights High, which first aired back in 2007.

Not surprisingly, considering his success with Summer Heights High, critics and public figures have come out applauding Lilley for yet another successful comedy series.

But Jonah from Tonga is a racist travesty.

Many who are quick to defend the show dismiss the racism the show exudes, arguing that it’s a satirical piece, drawing on a degree of truth about Pacific Islanders in Australia. This is a pathetic justification.

There isn’t anything to praise about a crude blackface act that degrades the entire Pacific Islander community for the sake of comedy.

The international backlash to Australia’s Hey Hey it’s Saturday’s blackface disgrace in 2009 didn’t stop Lilley, who also adopted blackface to play a caricature of a black rapper, S.Mouse, in his 2011 show Angry Boys.

The entire history of “blackface”, originally referred to as a “minstrel show” is the depiction of stupid, dangerous or predatory people of colour by white actors, designed to play on prejudice for entertainment.

There is nothing ironic or satirical about channelling racist tropes to win laughs.

Lilley depicts Pacific Islanders as poor, dim-witted, disrespectful bullies with no capacity for success in life.

The show isn’t an attempt to challenge society’s negative pre-conceived views on Pacific Islanders, it only serves to reinforce them.

Perhaps one of its most concerning portrayal is that of Tongans and their relationship with the education system. Jonah and his friendship group, “Fobba-liscious” are in a special education program (headed by an ex-leftist) because, coincidentally, they all have behavioural issues.

The teacher of the program, Mr Joseph, explicitly states, “We get a few Pacific Islanders…tricky kids…pretty hard to control”.

The idea that Pacific Islanders are not capable of succeeding academically is constantly reinforced by various characters in the show, especially by the white school captain who in one scene tells Jonah, “shut up FOB, you can’t even read”. (FOB is a racist slur for immigrants meaning Fresh off the Boat).

Lilley’s portrayal heavily suggests that it’s the inherent culture of Pacific Islanders that inevitably leads to their lack of success in school, and not the added obstacles they face under a system which fails them.

The attack completely trivialises a long history of systemic racism towards Pacific Islanders in Australia, beginning between 1863 and 1904, when approximately 62,000 Pacific Islanders were lured, kidnapped and brought to Australia as slave labourers to work on plantations.

There may be seeds of truth in the show that many Pacific Islanders can relate to.

Alan Latu, a Tongan social worker who was approached to be a part of the series, told ABC he fondly recalled childhood memories during the scene where the Takalua kids are mucking around during family prayers.

But for Alan, finding any common ground with the show stopped after an unwelcoming twist in portrayal “it’s a good laugh … but then the father of the family turns around and swears at everybody …that’s not something that would happen…overall there are parts I find hilarious, but they are outweighed by the parts that I find absolutely cringe worthy”.


Inspiringly, people have already started to fight back against the show through a social media campaign.

The #MyNameIsNOTJonah hash tag is growing larger every day on social media platforms, with Pacific Islanders (mainly Tongan university students) posting photos of themselves with messages contradicting the show’s sweeping simplifications.

One of the instigators of the movement, Salote Taukalau, poses a question sharply, “is it really ‘just a TV show?’…what is the cost of having someone gather all of the negative stereotypes that are labelled on…the whole Pacific Islander community and over-exaggerate them on national TV?”

Lilley’s own dismissal of the ramifications his show will have on the perception of Tongans shows that he is completely unconcerned about contributing to the stigma surrounding Pacific Islanders.

On top of the racism, the show is replete with homophobic jokes, fat jokes and juvenile toilet humour.

Jonah from Tonga isn’t “just a laugh” it’s mocking and exploiting a culture and people for cheap comedic expediency. Chris Lilley’s amoral comedic style that relies on shallow, offensive methods undeniably demonstrates his lack of originality and wit.

By Gabrielle Pei Tiatia

Jonah from Tonga
Directed by Chris Lilley and Stuart McDonald


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