The Sadness and Shame of ‘Jonah from Tonga’

by Alisi Tulua


It is hard to unpack the debilitating sadness and frustration I felt watching the HBO series Jonah from Tonga; so hard that it took me a long time to write this down. I imagine that the same is felt by my fellow Tongan brothers and sisters who have watched the show.

I am Tongan. I was born and raised in Tonga and grew up here in America. What does that mean exactly? It means that I was raised fully immersed in the sanctity of respect, humility, and love that fostered a home of over twenty brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, and grandparents.

The Tongan language emphasizes the closeness of our relations to one another by the nonexistence of Tongan words for cousin, aunt, or uncle; you are brothers and sisters with mothers, fathers, and grandparents that raise you with core values that hold you closely as a community unit that is family. These relationships are woven so tightly that the sanctity of that closeness holds us accountable to respecting each other at all costs. Understanding our closeness defines how we treat one another, how we treat others outside of our culture, and how strongly we hold on to a community centered in the Tongan identity; even outside of our homelands.

Jonah from Tonga defiles the core values of our Tongan culture and rips apart the fabric that holds us together as a family; as a community. Its vile depiction of our relationships with each other as brothers and sisters, as children of our parents, as members of a larger community, ravishes the sanctity of this respect.

While I cry alongside the larger American community about the brown-facing that misappropriates our identity, my bones are broken, my heart ripped out, and my voice muted because this show violates our culture in a way that feels like being physically violated. Its explicit nature restricts any discussions within my family and its false depiction of Tonganess nulls any analysis. Its mainstream reach is scary because of its ability to define who Tongans are in the eyes of outside communities. Worst of all, its mainstream broadcast normalizes this as Tonganess to the 43% of our community that are youth and didn’t have the privilege of being immersed in the core teachings of Tongan culture.

I came across Jonah from Tonga as I was scrolling through the TV listing at my parents’ house this weekend. My parents were sitting right behind me as I pressed the remote so hard to advance the listing past the show. I felt so much shame fill my face as my mother asked me why that show had Tonga in its title. I couldn’t bring myself to show her, much less explain to her, what the show was about.

“Tamai mo Fa’e (Dad and Mom), you didn’t sacrifice your life across the ocean dreaming greatness for us, for your dreams to be so disgustingly depicted for the world to believe through this show.” Jonah from Tonga IS NOTTongan.

Alisi Tulua is a community organizer who lives in Los Angeles. She was born and raised in Tonga and grew up in Monterey, California. She holds a M.S. and B.S. degrees from the University of California, San Diego.



Brownface: Jonah from Tonga

In Jonah from Tonga (a 6 part ‘mockumentary’ tv series to be shown on HBO) the main character, Jonah, is a criminal teenage Australian boy of Tongan roots. There are several areas of serious concern with this series.

First, Jonah is played by a Caucasian, 39-year-old Australian in brown face make-up and a curly haired wig. Brownface in 2014, really?

Second, Jonah is clearly identified as ‘Tongan’. The name of the show is Jonah from Tonga. The series starts in ‘Tonga’. The logo is a caricature of of a ‘Tiki’ carving. Etc. We get it. You want us to think it’s about a Tongan. And for Americans, most of whom have little previous knowledge about Tonga, this series will shape the way they think about the nation, its culture, and its people. So what will they learn?

1. All the teenage ‘Tongan’ boys shown in the series are low achievers, gang members, or in jail. The school’s high achievers are Caucasians.

2. Much of the ‘comedy’ is derived from this blackface/brownfaced ‘Tongan’ character’s acts of violence, sexual aggression, ignorance and profanity. This is problematic not only because of the show’s astounding inherent racism, but because much of his behavior is deeply counter to Tongan culture. He swears at his sister and his father. He is extremely disrespectful to teachers. He makes sexual edvances on his cousin. He is sexually suggestive to his Aunt and a Nun. And much, much more. All this is deeply offensive in Tongan culture. Tonga is a devoutly religious country, very family-oriented, with one of the highest PhD rates per capital. None of this is reflected in Jonah from Tonga.

3. In another nod to the racism of minstrel shows, Jonah’s only saving talent is presented as dancing, and his brother’s as singing.

4. The excuse given for all this is ‘lighten up, it’s only comedy’. First, even reviewers who liked it thought it was not that funny. A typicalreview is: “the documentary truth of the situation and the people seems more important than the laughs here” (Julia Raeside, The Guardian). Which captures the problem  — many viewers will assume there is a ‘documentary truth’ in the series that teaches them something about Tonga. And it will be equally unfunny when a Tongan boy, already doing his best to fit in an American high school, gets taunted with a variation of ‘Hey Jonah – show us your dXXk tattoo!’

Tonga is a loyal friend of the US. It has troops in Afganistan, large, devout communities in Salt Lake City, academics in US higher education,  and players in major US sports teams. This show drives a wedge in that relationship. And for what?  The only saving grace is that Jonah from Tonga was a ratings disaster in Australia and the UK.


more on that racist piece of shit Chris Lilly



Ridley Scott’s Exodus film latest racist movie from hollywood

Director Ridley Scott’s new biblical blockbuster, Exodus: Gods and Kings, has come under fire for “whitewashing” African history, casting four white leads to tell a story of Israelities and Egyptians.

Sydney’s Joel Edgerton, a blue-eyed blond from Blacktown, has a shaved head and a deep tan to play the lead Egyptian role of pharaoh Ramses II.
A porcelain-pale Sigourney Weaver plays his mother, Queen Tuya.

US Breaking Bad star Aaron Paul features as Israelite leader Joshua and the English-born Christian Bale takes on the role of Moses.

Tariq Nasheed, a director of the race documentary series Hidden Colors, has campaigned against the film for “redefining history”.
“The storyline takes place in ancient Africa, but all the African Kings and Gods are portrayed by white actors and all the slaves, thieves and ‘lower class’ Egyptians are played by Black actors,” he wrote on Facebook

“When I saw they have Sigourney Weaver playing an African queen, I was done.”

A screenshot of the cast list on movie website IMDB, contrasting the roles of the black and white actors, has been retweeted more than 1100 times.

Some on Twitter have also taken aim at the set, particularly the nose on the Great Sphinx of Giza, saying it gives the statue a European profile.

The Exodus casting is the latest in a long Hollywood history of making actors play different ethnicities, no matter how much dark make-up is required.

Another Exodus actor, Englishman Ben Kinglsey, was rebuked for the heavy whole-body make-up he wore to play Gandhi, even though Kingsley has Indian heritage.

Anthony Hopkins went very orange as Shakespeare’s Moor Othello in a 1981 BBC production while Charlton Heston stood up for the right of a white actor to play a Eurasian role in Miss Saigon.

The US legend declared the casting block “obscenely racist” and resigned from the Actors Equity labour union in protest.

Modern Hollywood and the Ancient East

more reasons why Asian actors should go to Asia for entertainment jobs. stop begging racists for acting jobs

The 1001 Arabian Nights. The Biblical flood and the family that repopulated the world. The Jewish exodus out of Ancient Egypt. The story of Jesus of Nazareth. The Ancient Egyptian gods Horus, Ra, and Set…

These movie concepts, in development for 2014 and 2015 releases, are based on stories and histories from the Eurocentric concept of the “East” that have captured the Eurocentric imagination. They’re also rare acting opportunities for actors of color that continue to be cast with white actors.

Liam Hemmsworth and Anthony Hopkins will star as leads in the Arabian NightsRussell Crowe stars as the patriarch of the Earth-repopulating family of Noah in what the film claims is a “close adaptation of the Biblical story of Noah’s Ark.” Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado portrays the role of Jesus in Son of God. White Brit Christian Bale plays Moses and white Australian Joel Edgerton plays Ramses II in Exodus. White Scottish, Danish, and Australian actors top the cast of Gods of Egypt portraying Set, Horus, and Ra.

North African, Near Eastern, Middle Eastern, South Asian–they’re already arbitrary cultural classifications. Depending on Hollywood’s purposes, these characters, cultures, and stories are either made white or racialized as a swath of brown.

When the Persian characters were heroic protagonists in The Prince of Persia, they were depicted by white American and British actors (with the exception of the villain, depicted by mixed race British-Indian actor Ben Kingsley.) When the Persian characters were villains in 300, they were cast with black and brown actors including Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro as Xerxes and Ghanian actor Peter Mensah as the Spartan messenger who memorably declares “This is madness!” (Did either production cast Persian American or Persian actors in major roles? Nope.)

This is Hollywood. Hollywood doesn’t handle diversity with nuance. It ignores the diversity of Africa and views it as a black monolith (with the exception of a whitewashed Egypt), it doesn’t get distinctions such as Persian or Arab, and it encourages audiences to mentally blend South Asians and Middle Easterners in fantasy representations of barbarism and terrorism.

Many Major Theaters Believe in Color Blind Casting (Except When It Comes to People of Color)

stuff white people in theatre productions do:  whitewashing non-white  characters by only hiring whites to play them, asking to to act like the non-white character ethnicity and only hire POC to be in stereotypical, subservient roles and claim this is colourblind casting.

It’s Time Asians and other POCs quit being a part of this racist industry and quit begging these racist pieces of shit for acting jobs. they will never change.


Chuck Mee is all about fairness. The legendary American playwright believes there’s no such thing as an original play, and invites visitors to his website to “remix” his work. He also has some pretty visionary ideas about casting his shows. He writes:

Casting Note: In my plays, as in life itself, the female romantic lead can be played by a woman in a wheelchair. The male romantic lead can be played by an Indian man. And that is not the subject of the play. There is not a single role in any one of my plays that must be played by a physically intact white person. And directors should go very far out of their way to avoid creating the bizarre, artificial world of all intact white people, a world that no longer exists where I live, in casting my plays.

This quote particularly resonates with Asian actors, who are historically underrepresented on the stage. Many say a regular refrain from theaters is that they believe in colorblind casting. But, as a rash of recent controversies demonstrates, in practice that often means casting white actors in Asian roles.

Collaborators Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater recently ran a high profile workshop of the The Nightingale at the prestigious La Jolla Playhouse. The play’s set in ancient China, and the lead role of a Chinese monarch was cast with a white actor.

As the Huffington Post points out:

Most of the grievances have been aired on the theater company’s Facebook page. “Would you cast non African American people in the roles of ‘The Color Purple’ or an August Wilson play or ‘Topdog/Underdog’???” wrote one commenter. “I am eagerly anticipating your multiracial, non-traditionally cast production of Glengarry Glen Ross! Should be outstanding!” wrote another.

To his credit, the show’s director Christopher Ashley said that Asian actors were cast in some of the show’s smaller roles, and he was open to talking about the underrepresentation as a larger issue. In fact, as a direct response to this uproar, Ashley and several artistic directors of other local theaters gathered for a panel discussion about the question. Since the theater world is relatively small and interconnected, word about controversies this size generally spreads quickly. So it’s surprising that two other high profile theaters made the same mistake in less than a year.

London’s Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of The Orphan of Zhao. Often referred to as the “Chinese Hamlet”, the 17 person cast had only three actors of east Asian heritage in it — and they all had minor roles (including one woman who just played a dog).

British Chinese actor Daniel York, the vice-chair of the British Equity’s ethnic minority committee, told the Guardian the problem isn’t confined to the RSC: “The whole industry is reluctant to cast east Asians in non-race specific roles. We are generally only thought of as the Chinese takeaway man or the Japanese businessman.” he said.

It is a vicious cycle, York continued: “It’s incredibly hard for an east Asian person to build up the track record that would enable the RSC to feel confident in casting them in a decent role. We’re not on the radar because we’re not working very much.”

The RSC said it cast such an overwhelmingly large white cast because it needed to use the same actors in its other productions. However, Gabby Wong at Big Green Scotland makes theexcellent points:

The Orphan of Zhao is being played in repertory with two other plays, Pushkin’s Boris Godunov and Brecht’s Life of Galileo, and the justification for this ‘diverse, colourblind’ casting is that all actors must be suitable for all three plays. But none of the East Asian actors in the ensemble have leading roles in any of the three plays, taking on subservient roles in all of them. The title role of The Orphan of Zhao is played by Jake Fairbrother, yet it seems unimaginable that the RSC would have one of the East Asian actors play Boris or Galileo.

So the RSC are saying it is OK to have a white actor play a leading Chinese character but a Chinese actor can play a white character only as long as it is minor and hidden away; that Chinese people can’t tell a white story but they are now not even permitted to tell their own story either. Newsflash – it is only ‘diverse’ if the colourblindness is two-way traffic.

Then there’s the most recent, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, the play within a play inspired by an unfinished Charles Dickens novel. White actors are cast to portray two Sri Lankan characters — and they do so wearing brown face makeup. The New York Times even calls the production out for their “silly imitation exoticism” and “…absurd burnt umber makeup”. It’s debatablewhether the directors and producers should’ve cast white people and let them just look white; or cast Asian people and, you know, just let them look like themselves. Oh, and like the characters they’re playing.

And it goes on: Recent casting breakdowns for a Bollywood play coming to the states says in the first line: “NOTE: We are open to seeing Actors who are Non Indian, but who can believably play Indian Characters.” Another recently removed from Callboard (probably because it’d been cast) for Priscilla Queen Of The Desert read: SEEKING: CYNTHIA Female, 20s – 30s, Asian. (Actor can be any ethnicity-as long as she can convincingly portray Asian on stage).

You have to wonder if that would fly if they’d replaced Asian with “convincingly play black on stage,” or even “convincingly play white on stage.”

These frequent repeated incidents seem to reveal patterns so ingrained that theaters reflexively make the same poor choices, even after they’ve witnessed similar choices result in highly publicized controversies.

So, it’s no surprise that a group of Asian American actors banded together and crunched the numbers to prove that this type of underrepresentation is an endemic issue. The Asian American Performers Action Coalition (AAPAC) has a handy chart of the ethnic make up of all the actors on Broadway and in non profit theater from 2006-2011, and it’s depressing. Eighty percent caucasian, 14 percent African American, four percent Latino/Latina, two percent Asian American, and one percent other. Yes, it’s true that Asian Americans are six percent of the U.S. total population, but the percentage is higher in the urban population centers that typically host major theaters. For example, in New York City, it’s 11.8 percent.

A comment on AAPAC’s Facebook wall identifies the reality of the situation. In it, Kenneth Lee writes:

Going beyond [casting] breakdowns, if you made a visit to any casting director’s office, you’ll see ‘binders’ or file drawers categorized as types. Starting with male, female, ingenue, character actors, leading men/lady types, comedians…etc.. . Guess which ‘binder’ we get filed in? Asian. What does that mean? It means that unless a specifically asian role is being cast (or with some anecdotal exception), that binder sits there, unopened, gathering dust. Now if you can see this situation in the context of what is happening in Cloud Atlas, in the new Kublai Kahn movie starring Mickey Rourke, in Iron Man 3, in Airbender and in the upcoming Akira, you begin to find that even with Asian roles, that binder still sits there, unopened.

So, you could argue that the casting directors, producers, and directors for these major productions picked the best actors for the roles, but I don’t think that tells the whole story.

If you’re any kind of “other” in our society, you become accustomed to imagining yourself in the perspective of someone really different than yourself in order to enjoy a story. Since it could be argued we live in a culture that values the stories of white men most of the time, it makes sense that we all become used to seeing things from their perspective. (I mentioned this in a piece just yesterday but it’s complicated, powerful dynamic so it bears repeating here.) There’s a passage in Margaret Cho’s hilarious 2002 autobiography I’m the One That I Want where Cho talks about how, as a young girl, she couldn’t wait to grow up and become white like everyone on TV.

The white men casting these three shows have never had to place themselves in other people’s shoes. Because most stories are catered to them, it’s possible they never had to develop the same imaginative flexibility the rest of us are continually practicing. You might assume that when an Asian man or woman walks in to audition for the lead, the casting people think “other”. They could wonder, “How will the audience access this story since they’re not a Chinese woman?” But in reality, many of us have been doing that our entire lives. It’s possible that this might come into play in casting, with the end result almost always being: You want it to be universal, you gotta cast white. This might also help to explain the best-friend-slash-sidekick-of-color phenomenon — it’s a way for well-intentioned-if-somewhat-clueless producers to try for diversity without having to actually sacrifice their identification with the audience’s point of entry.

Another component might be that theater producers, directors, and casting agents just have disproportionately white Rolodexes, and haven’t made enough of an effort to build a list beyond that. It’s an availability bias, and a self perpetuating cycle — people have seen white actors take on all these amazing roles, because that’s who gets cast. They know what those actors are capable of, so it’s easy to imagine them in new roles. They don’t have the same level of experience with Asian actors, so even with a great audition, they might not capture the creators’ imaginations in the same way. A proven track record with a beloved actor will usually win the part, and it makes sense that most actors afforded those opportunities are white.

There’s no such thing as neutral casting. If the same people arguing that roles should go to the best person, regardless of race, then that should be true all of the time. Scriptnotes, a screenwriting podcast I listen to, tackled the issue of character ethnicity in scripts. Basically, the takeaway was, if no ethnicity is mentioned in the character description, you assume they’re white. Sometimes cheeky casting directors might ignore instructions and bring in whoever they think is best for the role, but many just get the job done with the tools they have. And often the tools? They’re white.

This particular blindspot sucks because there are so many reductive, stereotypical, and demeaning representations of Asian people out there, and so few truly human and complex Asian characters to counterbalance them. Somehow it feels a bit harder to stomach incidents like these in a world where shows like Two Broke Girls get renewed, despite the fact that that particular show’s depiction of Korean-American restaurateur Han Lee—aptly described by Andrew Ti as “A tiny, greedy, sexless man-child”—led The New Yorker to say the show is “so racist it’s baffling.” We need more stories about compelling, complicated, idiosyncratic Asian characters spanning the whole range of human experience, not just the few notes that seem to be repeated way too often.

This isn’t about straight-up evil, actively racist producers, directors, and casting directors, but it does reveal some of the smaller unconscious choices and assumptions people make that breed systemic exclusion. It’s possible we often make the unconscious assumption that white=neutral, and that informs all of our choices. But the thing is, it’s past time for everyone to recognize that we never lived in a white neutral country, and we certainly don’t live in one now. Our stories should represent our culture, in all its variety, and how we cast our stories is an important part of creating the culture we want.

Playwright David Henry Hwang (pictured above) puts it best:

In choosing works to enjoy, the country in general needs to see past the the notion that a piece’s “universality” has anything to do with the race and culture of its characters. Over the past 20 or 30 years, we seem to have crossed that Rubicon in the world of pop music. It’s hard nowadays to remember that it was once considered daring to put Michael Jackson or Prince videos on MTV, for fear white audiences wouldn’t watch them. We need to make that same transition in narrative-based art forms.

Kutcher draws internet’s ire with brownface in ad




LOS ANGELES ( – Ashton Kutcher‘s new ad for a potato chip company could find him eating crow soon.

The “Two and a Half Men” star’s ad for Popchips has raised the hackles of some in the Twitterverse, who are criticizing the ad as racist because Kutcher wears “brownface” in it.


The commercial parodies dating-service ads, with Kutcher playing Raj, a 39-year-old “Bollywood producer” who’s looking for love. But the ad itself isn’t getting much love from Internet detractors, who are criticizing the brown makeup and stereotypical behavior he displays in the spot.

New York writer/entrepreneur Anil Dash called for an apology from Popchips, Kutcher and others associated with the ad.

“I think the people behind this Popchips ad are not racist. I think they just made a racist ad, because they’re so steeped in our culture’s racism that they didn’t even realize they were doing it,” Dash wrote.

Brooklyn-based hip-hop group Das Racist was similarly unimpressed, and urged people to contact the company in protest.

A YouTube user offered another bashing in the comments section, writing, “LOL @ Ashton thinking he could become relevant again by putting on racist brownface, acting like Indian men are all creepers (who moustaches), and attempting caricatures of popular filmy dances. How mid-twentieth century! How cute! Very impressed.”

The ad is one in a series of Kutcher portraying a number of caricatures, including a bearded redneck, a dreadlocked British hippie and a pony-tailed German fashionista.

Popchips claims that the ad campaign wasn’t intended to offend.

“The new Popchips worldwide dating video and ad campaign featuring four characters was created to provoke a few laughs and was never intended to stereotype or offend anyone,” the company said in a statement provided to TheWrap. “At Popchips we embrace all types of shapes, flavors and colors, and appreciate all snackers, no matter their race or ethnicity. We hope people can enjoy this in the spirit it was intended.”

A spokeswomen for Kutcher has not yet responded to TheWrap’s request for comment – though it’s a safe bet that the actor is probably blushing right now, under all of that brownface makeup.