In Jonah from Tonga (a 6 part ‘mockumentary’ tv series to be shown on HBO) the main character, Jonah, is a criminal teenage Australian boy of Tongan roots. There are several areas of serious concern with this series.
First, Jonah is played by a Caucasian, 39-year-old Australian in brown face make-up and a curly haired wig. Brownface in 2014, really?
Second, Jonah is clearly identified as ‘Tongan’. The name of the show is Jonah from Tonga. The series starts in ‘Tonga’. The logo is a caricature of of a ‘Tiki’ carving. Etc. We get it. You want us to think it’s about a Tongan. And for Americans, most of whom have little previous knowledge about Tonga, this series will shape the way they think about the nation, its culture, and its people. So what will they learn?
1. All the teenage ‘Tongan’ boys shown in the series are low achievers, gang members, or in jail. The school’s high achievers are Caucasians.
2. Much of the ‘comedy’ is derived from this blackface/brownfaced ‘Tongan’ character’s acts of violence, sexual aggression, ignorance and profanity. This is problematic not only because of the show’s astounding inherent racism, but because much of his behavior is deeply counter to Tongan culture. He swears at his sister and his father. He is extremely disrespectful to teachers. He makes sexual edvances on his cousin. He is sexually suggestive to his Aunt and a Nun. And much, much more. All this is deeply offensive in Tongan culture. Tonga is a devoutly religious country, very family-oriented, with one of the highest PhD rates per capital. None of this is reflected in Jonah from Tonga.
3. In another nod to the racism of minstrel shows, Jonah’s only saving talent is presented as dancing, and his brother’s as singing.
4. The excuse given for all this is ‘lighten up, it’s only comedy’. First, even reviewers who liked it thought it was not that funny. A typicalreview is: “the documentary truth of the situation and the people seems more important than the laughs here” (Julia Raeside, The Guardian). Which captures the problem — many viewers will assume there is a ‘documentary truth’ in the series that teaches them something about Tonga. And it will be equally unfunny when a Tongan boy, already doing his best to fit in an American high school, gets taunted with a variation of ‘Hey Jonah - show us your dXXk tattoo!’
Tonga is a loyal friend of the US. It has troops in Afganistan, large, devout communities in Salt Lake City, academics in US higher education, and players in major US sports teams. This show drives a wedge in that relationship. And for what? The only saving grace is that Jonah from Tonga was a ratings disaster in Australia and the UK.
Young Tongans have been taking to Change.org, Facebook and Twitter (#MyNameIsNOTJonah) to try to get the message out that they are not like Jonah. They are listing academic achievements, work in the community, the fact that they have no criminal record. They shouldn’t have to. Please HBO, Mr. Lilley, Ms. Brunt and Ms. Waters, please don’t slander a whole nation and sacrifice the future of young Tongans for the sake of this series. It WILL affect them.
We, the undersigned, ask you to please do the right thing and pullJonah from Tonga from the schedule. It won’t cost you that much but running it will cost Tonga, and Tongans a lot, for years to come.