A Tongan man who claims Chris Lilley’s Jonah From Tonga is based on his specific likeness has spoken out about how he felt “embarrassed, full of hate, angry and exploited” after seeing Summer Heights High for the first time.
In an exclusive interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, Filipe Mahe explained how the recent removal of Lilley’s programs from Netflix resurfaced the painful feelings he felt when the show first aired.
Mahe starred in the 2004 ABC docuseries Our Boys, with the first episode entirely focussing on him – a Tongan schoolboy who was struggling with both family issues and learning difficulties at Canterbury Boys High in Sydney.
While it may seem like a stretch for Mahe to claim Jonah Takalua is based on his portrayal in the docuseries, it’s also important to note that Lilley went to the school, observed classes and even watched a Tongan dance performance as part of his research for Summer Heights High.
The likeness is pretty undeniable, with the SMH describing both Mahe and the fictional Takalua as “charismatic, cheeky, [having] trouble reading and [being good at] dance,” among other similarities in their family lives and high school experiences.
Netflix’s removal of Lilley’s problematic programmes sparked outrage online, with countless fans claiming that the show was just a bit of fun and wasn’t offensive to Tongan people.
But Mahe, who has some pretty solid evidence to support his claim that Jonah is him, was clearly offended by the show.
According to SMH, he watched Summer Heights High for the first time in 2008, the year after its debut, and took it incredibly personally.
“I knew from that episode Jonah was me,” he told the paper. “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.”
But it’s not just Mahe and his family who agree that Jonah was based on him, with Kerry Brewster, the director of the Our Boys docuseries also agreeing that Jonah was based on Filipe.
While Our Boys’ portrayal of Filipe focussed on showing how the school system failed him (he was unable to read or write before Year 9), Brewster claims that Lilley merely exploited a “vulnerable child” who placed “enormous trust” in her.
“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 told SMH.
Throughout his high school life, Filipe Mahe had to deal with extremely difficult personal issues including the death of his father, his mother’s declining health and his sister’s disability, making it even more disappointing that he feels like Lilley exploited him at such a vulnerable time.
“He tore me down when I was vulnerable,” he said. “I agreed to be documented [in Our Boys] to show other boys that it will all be OK. We’ll struggle but we’ll get somewhere and make it. I didn’t get filmed to be made fun of.”
Lilley is yet to confirm or deny whether Filipe was an inspiration for the character of Jonah Takalua, but if a Tongan man is able to draw this conclusion and feel exploited by it, we need to listen to him.
When it comes to racism, or “jokes” that rely heavily on racist stereotypes, it’s not up to White people to decide what is or isn’t offensive.
Maybe erasing these sorts of programs from our history isn’t the right way to handle this, but we do need to start paying attention to the people who are on the receiving end of this sort of racism.
It doesn’t matter if you or I didn’t think Jonah From Tonga or Summer Heights High was offensive and exploitative, because Filipe did. And that’s something we need to take note of.
The Our Boys docuseries is a stark contrast to the racial stereotyping seen in Summer Heights High. If you’re interested in hearing the stories of the diverse range of students like Filipe, who shared their experiences in the hope of helping others like them, you can watch it for free via Kanopy here.