Meet Jonah Takalua; a crass, weirdly endearing teenage boy from Tonga. He verbally abuses his teachers, bullies his school friends, and disrespects every figure of authority in his life. He’s the walking, talking embodiment of every Islander stereotype we have.
He’s also, incidentally, a fictional character played by a 39-year-old white guy in black make-up – or technically (according to the character’s creator Chris Lilley) a dark spray tan.
This isn’t the first controversial character Chris Lilley has created. From Summer Heights High and Angry Boys, to Ja’mie the man has made a career of risque imitation, dressing up as a black rap artist, a Japanese mother, a Chinese musical theatre enthusiast, a teenage private school girl, a middle-aged woman, a gay drama teacher, and bogan twin boys. He’s versatile, to say the least.
Lilley’s a human chameleon, and he’s brilliant. But he’s also wildly offensive, in a way that as a society we would usually condemn. ‘Blackface’ started centuries ago when people blackened their face with grease, dirt or paint to play black people – who were always portrayed as vulgar, sexually inappropriate, uneducated, or feral. Since the 1800s, it’s been recognised as a malicious, oppressive form of “entertainment” that plays up the disempowerment of black people.
So when a white man puts dark make-up on today, it invokes centuries of racism and persecution. Most comedians know it’s a no-go zone. Did Chris Lilley miss the memo, or do we let him get away with it because he’s funny?
Most importantly, is he satirising Australian racism… Or is he perpetuating it?
Here’s a little preview of Jonah from Tonga, which aired on the ABC last night.
You might fall a little bit in love, or at least sympathy, with Jonah. He’s lost and misunderstood and vulnerable. His total lack of decorum will make you want to slap him or hug him… But that’s a problem. The portrayal of Jonah encourages a potentially dangerous reaction in white Australian viewers – wanting to protect, educate, or punish a kid of Islander descent.
It also assumes that everyone who watches the show knows how satire works; that it’s about laughing at ourselves not mocking someone from a marginalised group in society.