Tongan community disappointed, offended by new HBO show

Published: Monday, July 14 2014 6:00 p.m. MDT

Tevita Kinikini, an academic adviser of Pacific Islander Programs at the University of Utah, is offended and disappointed that HBO would air a show like "Jonah from Tonga." The show, he said, perpetuates stereotypes that do not represent the values and virtues of the Tongan community.

Winston Armani, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — A petition is going around asking HBO to take a show out of its lineup before it even hits the air.

The six-part mockumentary series “Jonah From Tonga” centers on a young boy from the island nation.

Several members of the Tongan community found the show offensive, saying it has racist undertones.

Richard Kaufusi, a member of the Tongan community, couldn't even bring himself to watch the HBO trailer.

"It's damaging, especially with an impressionable demographic they're trying to target,” Kaufusi said.

The main character, Jonah, is supposed to be a 14-year-old Australian boy of Tongan descent. He's played by 39-year-old Chris Lilley, a Caucasian actor in brownface and a curly wig. Lilley is also the creator of the spin-off series from Australia.

Jonah and his group of friends are portrayed as gang members, bullies and underachievers, while the white students are overachievers.

Kaufusi and other members of the Tongan community in Utah say the show perpetuates a stereotype they've worked hard to dispel.

"You're talking about a mere maybe 2 percent of something that’s negative compared to the 98 (percent) of all the good things going on in the Pacific Islander community, especially in the Tongan community,” Kaufusi said.

“He’s painted a picture not only to look like one, but some stereotypes that are very offensive to our Tongan community, which does not represent the values and virtues that we have as Tongans,” said Tevita Kinikini, an academic adviser of Pacific Islander programs at the University of Utah.

Kinikini works with youths and helps guide them toward a life of education and service.

"For him to create a character which disrespects women and girls and elders is a disappointment. It's not right, and it's not true,” he said, shaking his head. "Our values are of respect, of family, of charity. We’re a God-fearing people.”

Kinikini said he worries about the effect it will have on young Polynesians.

"These kid who are watching YouTube all the time, puts in Tonga, all of a sudden there it is,” he said. “It’s negative. It’s not right.”

These men support the online movement and hope it will serve as a way to raise awareness about their culture.

"This is a start, and it's going to make some great headway on it,” Kinikini said.

So far, HBO has not responded to the petition. The show is scheduled to premiere next month.

Email: akewish@deseretnews.com

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