explainer

A documentary, a school boy and a cancellation: The real story behind Jonah from Tonga.

Australia first met Jonah Takalua during Summer Heights High in 2007. 

The teenager verbally abused his teachers, bullied his classmates in the school playground, and disrespected every authority figure in his life. 

Most importantly, he was a fictional character played by a middle-aged white man in black makeup. 

The controversial character was known as 'Jonah from Tonga', the same name as the spin-off series that went to air in 2014 on Australia's national broadcaster, the ABC

He was created and played by comedian Chris Lilley, a man who has made a career out of risqué imitation of countless characters from diverse backgrounds. He would wear black face for some of those characters.

As is now well-documented, his comedy has not aged well. 

Watch the trailer for Summer Heights High here. Post continues below. 


Video via ABC

In fact, some of his shows are now recognised for being so blatantly racist that, amid the backdrop of the recent Black Lives Matter protests, Netflix decided to remove four of them - including Summer Heights High and Jonah From Tonga - from their library, due to the actor's portrayal of non-white characters.

Now, the real story behind the damaging stereotype of Polynesian people, perpetuated by the show, is surfacing. 

In an exclusive interview with Sydney Morning Herald over the weekend, Filipe Mahe, a Tongan man, revealed the characterisation of Jonah was based on him, after a documentary on his school aired a few years prior.

In 2004, Filipe Mahe was involved in the ABC mini-series Our Boys, which followed the experiences of the students at Canterbury Boys High in Sydney.

The first episode focused on Mahe. The ABC's program summary for the show reads: "This week, cheeky, disruptive 15 year-old Filipe Mahe from Tonga has slipped through the net. He's made it into Year 9 without being able to read or write.

"Teachers, frustrated by his poor attendance and bad behaviour, realise that behind Filipe's tough exterior and flamboyant antics is a seriously depressed boy with a tragic past. But the school has neither the staff nor money to give him the intensive remedial teaching he needs.

"Filipe, however, has a great talent. He's a beautiful dancer. Encouraged by the school, he takes the lead role in a Polynesian inter-school dancing competition."

It sounds suspiciously familiar - almost the exact same - to the characterisation of Jonah, who was known for his bad behaviour as much as his break-dancing skills. 

Mahe told the Fairfax publication that upon watching an episode in 2008, he knew: "Jonah was me".

"I've always thought it was racism to Tongans but never spoke out," he told journalist Garry Maddox. 

Mahe added that he felt embarrassed and exploited by the racist representation.

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"Young Tongan boys have been stereotyped as dumb, clowns, a nuisance, little sh*ts, violent and foul-mouthed. I feel like I'm responsible for this stereotype and that hurts the most."

Jonah From Tonga aired in 2014. Image: ABC.

Throughout Jonah's time on screen, Lilley and the ABC received criticism, but it was largely overshadowed by the high commercial success of both Summer Heights High and Jonah From Tonga. 

In an interview with Fairfax Media in 2011, Lilley was asked about the backlash he had received, to which he answered: "I think people who take things out of context might think that it crosses a line. Most people who see it get it and, once you're there in that world, it makes sense". 

In 2014, Rick Kalowski, the ABC’s head of comedy, also responded to the criticism, saying : “Jonah From Tonga plays with stereotypes, but it’s doing so to make an observation about the narrow-minded attitudes expressed by some of its characters, including Jonah’s own. Indeed, prejudice by and against Jonah is clearly shown to be at the root of the problems he faces in the series.”

Listen to Mamamia's daily entertainment podcast, The Spill, where hosts Laura Brodnik and Kee Reece discuss the shows banned by Netflix. Post continues below. 

Even American television network HBO, who picked up the show, defended the character in 2014, telling Bustle: "Chris Lilley is an award-winning writer and performer whose work has delighted millions of people all over the world. He was first introduced to HBO viewers six years ago with his acclaimed series Summer Heights High. “Jonah from Tonga” is a spin off of that series (which is currently the best-selling TV show on DVD in Australian history)... He joins a long list of comic artists who have brought their original voices to the network." 

Lilley has not yet responded to the claims made by Mahe, which were corroborated by one of his English teachers. 

Now though, meaningful change continues to be at the forefront of the Black Lives Matter movement, as the world grapples with understanding the extent of the systemic racism experienced by people of colour in the many facets of life. 


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