Jonah from Tonga. You may have heard of it, or you may not have. It’s an HBO show that recently began airing in the U.S. Many individuals and organizations have been critical of the use of “brownface” by the main character. White Australian Chris Lilley, 39, plays a Tongan Australian teenager on the “mockumentary”-style show.
The first few episodes are now available to view on YouTube. In the show, Lilly uses homophobic slurs. Many critics, even before the show aired, noted the lack of positive portrayals of Tongan Americans in mass media. The Asian Pacific American Media Coalition sent a letter to HBO asking the premium channel to pull the show: “Especially in the absence of alternative depictions in the U.S. of Tonga and its people, Jonah from Tonga can seriously damage the perception and self-image of Tongan Americans. We are also alarmed at the series’ casual use of ‘brownface,’ a staple technique of minstrel shows that was retired in the early part of the last century. The fact that HBO apparently saw no problem in 2014 with exposing American audiences to a white actor painted brown and pretending to be a juvenile delinquent of another race reveals the dire need for the network to address its diversity problems.”
Despite groups like the Asian American Justice Center and the NAACP writing to HBO and critics writing soul-damaging reviews of the show, the network station decided to move forward with it. A Change.org petition has been signed by more than 11,100.
— HBO (@HBO) August 8, 2014
They’re not alone. TV critics, journalists and bloggers have also panned the show:
“Chris Lilley’s show Jonah from Tonga has started its run in the United States to a similar reaction it received in Australia – a mixture of poor reviews and calls for its scrapping due to perceived racism.” – Sydney Morning Herald
“This means that Lilley is, in essence, acting out a modern minstrel show. He’s an exhibitionist in brownface, which should never be a permissible proxy for white audiences to work out their cultural anxieties and racial prejudices. Whether people want it or not, there are racial boundaries – and brownface is primary among them.” – The Guardian
From Angry Asian Man:
Just watched Jonah From Tonga with a room full of Pacific Islanders. Guess what, HBO? They did not like it.
— Angry Asian Man (@angryasianman) August 9, 2014