Major US Civil Rights Organizations Slam ABC/HBO’s Jonah From Tonga

Writer/Actor Chris Lilley in brownface as Jonah From Tonga
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As ABC’s show Jonah from Tonga airs on HBO in the US and Canada, enormous support has been voiced for Tonga and Tongans. A range of major American civil rights organizations, including the NAACP, National Hispanic Media Coalition, American Indians in Film/TV, Empowering Pacific Islander Communities and The Asian Pacific American Media Coalition (which itself includes the Asian American Justice Center, Asian Pacific American Advocates, Japanese American Citizens League, Media Action Network for Asian Americans, National Federation of Filipino American Associations, and more) have written to HBO expressing their “deep concern” about the show.

This groundbreaking show of solidarity with Tonga and Tongans has been an important counter to the show’s racism.

The concerns raised by the groups were elucidated in a statement by the Asian Pacific Media Coalition (APAMC) and the Japanese American Citizens League. The full statement is below.

Writer/Actor Chris Lilley in brownface as Jonah From Tonga

Writer/Actor Chris Lilley in brownface as Jonah From Tonga

Asian Pacific American Media Coalition and Japanese American Citizens League Condemn Brownface in HBO Mockumentary “Jonah from Tonga”

The Asian Pacific Media Coalition (APAMC) and the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) expressed disappointment in HBO’s decision to air a new Australian “mockumentary” comedy series, “Jonah from Tonga.” In the series, a white Australian actor, Chris Lilley, performs in brown makeup and a wig to depict Jonah, a young Tongan teen living in Australia. Jonah and his Tongan peers are portrayed as disrespectful, aggressive, and delinquent. Numerous scenes in the series mock or misrepresent Tongan culture and customs.

Daniel Mayeda, Co-Chair of the Coalition, said, “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.”

Both groups charged that although the show is styled as a comedy, harmful and offensive stereotypes perpetuated by “Jonah from Tonga” are not humorous. Bigotry and racism have historically been employed in the pursuit of humor. When done correctly, satire can be a powerful weapon for revealing and skewering the irrationality and absurdity of racist ideas. The crude characterizations in “Jonah from Tonga” only reveal Lilley’s deep ignorance and disrespect for the Tongan people.

Priscilla Ouchida, Executive Director of JACL, concluded, “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.”

APAMC and JACL charged “Jonah from Tonga” with being an affront to the sensibilities of American audiences who understand that honoring diversity implies a healthy respect for the dignity of all cultures. The organizations urged HBO to pull “Jonah from Tonga” from its lineup.

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The Asian Pacific American Media Coalition (APAMC) has agreements with ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC committing them to work to increase diversity on-screen and behind the camera. APAMC members include such organizations as the Asian American Justice Center, East West Players, Japanese American Citizens League, Media Action Network for Asian Americans, National Federation of Filipino American Associations, OCA, and Visual Communications.

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