“I feel like I’m responsible for this stereotype”

Back in 2008 I noted an ABC documentary Our Boys (broadcast in 2004) may have been the inspiration for Chris Lilley’s Jonah character, which first appeared in the acclaimed Summer Heights High (2007).

The synopsis read:

Follows the lives of students and teachers at Canterbury Boys High. This week we meet Filipe Mahe, a cheeky, disruptive 15-year-old from Tonga who has slipped through the net – he’s made it into Year 9 without being able to read or write.

Filipe Mahe, now 33, has told the Sydney Morning Herald, “I knew from that episode Jonah was me.

“I’ve always thought it was racism to Tongans but never spoke out,” he said. “I would have been labelled a ‘sook’ or ‘can’t handle the banter’ so I didn’t say anything.”

He added, “Young Tongan boys have been stereotyped as dumb, clowns, a nuisance, little shits, violent and foul-mouthed.

“I feel like I’m responsible for this stereotype and that hurts the most.”

In earlier interviews Lilley maintained visiting a number of schools to research Summer Heights High. The character went on to star in his own series, Jonah from Tonga.

But filmmaker Kerry Brewster, who made Our Boys, also maintains the character had a detrimental affect on the young Filipe.

Our Boys lifted its subjects up, showing their complicated real selves,” she said. “For Filipe, who was a vulnerable child, it took courage and enormous trust.

“He paid a terrible price when Lilley exploited him, even if he just meant it for comic effect, to create the derisive brown-face caricature. Its mocking portrayal of Jonah was racist and cruel.”

She has also written an opinion piece for the Sydney Morning Herald:

After Our Boys was broadcast in 2004, Lilley was given access to the school to research his new project for the ABC, Summer Heights High. He sat anonymously for a day or two at the back of classrooms, with his hoodie up.

In 2007, a year after Filipe had left Canterbury Boys, the school’s Islander students tuned in to Summer Heights High. At the end of the first episode they were uncomfortable. The second episode clinched it. They were mortified, the school was embarrassed and its teachers furious.

The boys stopped watching or talking about the new TV show that entrenched Lilley’s reputation as comedic genius. I did the same. I had recognised scenes. Some of Jonah’s lines were close to word for word. But they’d been twisted against the real boy. My co-producer, Andrea Lang, shared my alarm that a vulnerable child had been used to create a national figure of fun.

Netflix has removed Angry Boys, Summer Heights High, We Can Be Heroes, and Jonah From Tonga from circulation but Ja’mie Private School Girl and Lunatics remain.

Princess Pictures, which made Lilley’s comedies, has not responded to enquiries.

13 Comments:

  1. That is really sad that Chris Lilley sat at the back of these classrooms just watching these kids. He could have at least made an attempt to get know them before portraying them on TV. Perhaps it would have better informed his performance because it sounds like the black face wasn’t the only issue, it seems his over all potrayal was problematic if is inspirations hated it that much.

  2. Chris Lilley is comedy genius and these shows were made truly before this whole racism movement started. Chris has nothing to apologise for.

  3. There are two separate issues here. The first is taking a real person, building a show based on ridiculing their life challenges, all without their consent. In my opinion, this is reprehensible.

    Secondly, is the issue of whether actors (or artists, or musicians) are allowed to portray a demographic for which they have no personal experience. If actors are prevented from acting as someone else, then we have no art at all. Cate Blanchett cannot play Elizabeth I because she is neither English nor royal, nor of that era. Hugh Jackman cannot be Jean Valjean because he has never been French or a prisoner. Deborah Mailman cannot portray a lawyer.The Mona Lisa cannot be painted by a male, John Williamson cannot sing about “the drover’s boy” because he has no personal experience of being a young, indigenous female. And on, and on it goes. It cuts into the heart of what artistic expression…

  4. Simply things are need to be put in content and context. We all know Ja’mie is played buy a male. It is how it is portrayed. Where do we started a stop I cant wait for people to complain that Groundskeeper Willie from the Simpson isn’t played by someone from Scotland

    • I’m wondering if things like this can be worked for everyone too. For example James Earl Jones (who is black) is known to voice Darth Vader. Yet Darth Vader is actually an injured Anakin in that suit who is actually white. I’m sure there are other characters out there too but Darth Vader is one of the biggest that comes to mind.

    • What is the context? I remember when Jonah from Tonga first aired many Tongans and pacific islanders were saying it was racist and offensive even back then, yet seemingly the ABC didn’t care

    • I think declaration statements for these sort of programs would be able to provide content and context. Like consumer information before the programs.

  5. The Ja’mie character would also be seen as offensive, especially in some feminist groups and feminist ideology in this day and age. The issue is that the characters are portrayed by a person that is foreign from the culture, whether it be Jonah from Summer Heights High, Apu from The Simpsons, Manuel from Fawlty Towers etc. and the stereotypes are not representative given the second or many generations of migrant families, and growing middle and upper classes of developing countries and black, ethnic or minority communities.

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