TV

Chris Lilley’s ‘Jonah From Tonga’ Has Been Pulled From New Zealand TV Over Racism Concerns

The decision came after a member of parliament said the show "perpetuates negative stereotypes".

Chris Lilley’s Jonah from Tonga has been pulled from New Zealand television over concerns that it perpetuates negative stereotypes about people with Pacific heritage.

The comedy series is a spinoff of Summer Heights High and sees Lilley, a white Australian comedian, sporting brown makeup and a thick accent in his role as the title character, a 14-year-old juvenile delinquent of Tongan descent. It first aired on the ABC in Australia where it proved a ratings failure. It also caused significant controversy in the United States, where it was screened on HBO, with a number of prominent commentators and members of the Tongan community slamming the show as racist.

Maori Television in New Zealand screened the first episode on Thursday night, before the station’s board decided on Saturday to pull the program from their roster. “The values of Maori Television include respecting all communities,” said the board’s chairperson, Georgina te Heuheu. “As a leading indigenous broadcaster we have a responsibility to present all cultures with a degree of respect and aroha not least those of our Pacific whanaunga.”

New Zealand’s Minister for the Pacific Peoples, Alfred Ngaro, has backed the decision, having previously told Stuff.co.nz that the series “perpetuates negative stereotypes of Pacific people,” adding that “the fact it is pitched as comedy doesn’t make that any more acceptable.”

Increasingly, it seems as though the explanation that Lilley is satirising racial stereotypes is no longer passing muster among his critics. Reviewing the show for The Guardian back in 2014, Polynesian writer Morgan Godfery called Jonah from Tonga “a modern minstrel show” and Lilley “an exhibitionist in brownface, which should never be a permissible proxy for white audiences to work out their cultural anxieties and racial prejudices.”

Meanwhile, Kiwi comedian James Nokise told Stuff this week that the satire and racial commentary in the show “isn’t strong enough to counter a white guy in black face being part of the joke”.