Netflix removes Chris Lilley shows, sparking questions about what to do with problematic pop culture

Article by Paul Donoughue /
ABC /
June 12, 2020 /
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You might have heard that Netflix quietly pulled the plug on several of Australian comedian Chris Lilley’s shows, removing them from its platform.

While the streaming service won’t say why it did so, Lilley has been criticised for years for donning blackface in popular shows like Jonah From Tonga and Summer Heights High.

And it wasn’t just Lilley’s work.

Netflix has also removed Little Britain, over its use of blackface, and British comedy series The Mighty Boosh, which features Noel Fielding as The Spirit of Jazz, a character meant to recall black jazz musicians of the US Deep South.

Meanwhile, US streaming service HBO Max temporarily removed Gone With The Wind, a cinema classic from 1939, because of its depiction of slavery.

These moves represent a concerted push by the gatekeepers of screen culture in the past few days to remove content featuring racist stereotypes.

But it’s not the first time platforms have been scrubbed of problematic content, and while it appears related to the current anti-racism protests around the world, it likely won’t be the last.

Netflix should not ‘just virtue signal’

Beverley Wang, host of the RN pop culture show Stop Everything!, said Netflix’s actions could be an example of mainstream culture catching up to conversations that have long been happening among the communities concerned.

“If you’re tuning into Chris Lilley now and you’re watching Jonah From Tonga, and if you’re feeling an uncomfortable twinge, that should be a clue to what other people watching Jonah From Tonga have been thinking for some time now,” she told ABC Melbourne.

She said Australian culture had “tried a way where we have not acknowledged racism and that hasn’t worked out well for us, unfortunately”.

“So, I think let’s be open to trying another way.”

On Thursday, Brooke Boney, a Gamilaroi Gomeroi woman and the entertainment presenter on Nine’s Today Show, told viewers that if she had children she would not want racist stereotypes negatively influencing their view of themselves.

“But I’d also like to be able to show them how poorly our people were thought of and treated in the past,” she said.

She said if streaming services and production companies wanted to create real change and “not just virtue signal in a moment of turmoil”, they would need to open more doors in the industry for people of colour and be more responsible and inclusive in their storytelling in the future.

‘We know that blackface is wrong’

That is a view shared by people of colour who work in the screen industry in Australia, including Benjamin Law, creator and co-writer of The Family Law on SBS, and Briggs, the Indigenous rapper who has written for Black Comedy and Netflix’s Disenchantment.

“We are in 2020 now and I think if you talk to black people, and you look at the history, we know that blackface is wrong,” said Law, who is also co-chair of the Screen Diversity Inclusion Network.

“We’ve grown into a society where we want black stories told from a black perspective and where black people aren’t the punchline.

“I don’t think that’s too controversial.”

Law said Netflix’s decision was not censorship or akin to book-burning but was instead a commercial platform choosing to disassociate itself from offensive content.

He agreed with Boney that what was required of Netflix now was not just the removal of content but an investment in stories that might counteract those harmful depictions.

“Netflix isn’t just a platform, they are a production house, and they invest in original work,” he said.

“I welcome that they have signalled as a company they want to invest in diversity … They’ve got a role to play as a global leader, but all broadcasters do, including the ABC and SBS and local streamers and broadcasters.”

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Briggs says getting rid of Chris Lilley’s blackface from Netflix is a small step for the company.
Culture as a teachable moment

Dr Lauren Rosewarne, a senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne, has argued that audiences should be careful about viewing historical content through a contemporary lens.

She said there was a problem with seeking to erase elements of popular culture, using the example of Michael Jackson, whose music was pulled from radio airwaves after the re-airing last year of child abuse allegations in the documentary Leaving Neverland.

“Do we delete him from the American music canon, even though he made such an important contribution?”

But she also said that even if TV shows or films were left alone as historical artefacts or teachable moments, there was no guarantee viewers would interpret them that way.

“We are not used to watching popular culture with a manual. We use it for light relief,” she told ABC Brisbane.

“This is why I think you’ll see streaming services just saying, like they have in the past few days, ‘it’s just easier for us not to be in that space of looking like we are endorsing that content’.”

HBO Max, Disney keeping some controversial films

HBO Max is taking an educational route, aiming to restore Gone With The Wind — which won 10 Academy Awards, including for Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American actor win such an award — to its platform with a note about its harmful content.

“It will return with a discussion of its historical context and a denouncement of those [racist] depictions,” a spokesperson for the platform said this week.

Disney has done something similar.

Disney is no longer just that thing from your childhood

Disney is having a major cultural moment, driven by shrewd deal-making, clever marketing and our thirst for spin-offs and nostalgia.The cultural powerhouse has a number of problematic titles in its vault, and on Disney+, a warning appears onscreen before films like Dumbo, telling viewers they include “outdated cultural depictions”.

This reckoning with harmful content of the past extends beyond TV and film, too.

In 2018, Guns N Roses released a boxset of their popular early records but left off one song, One In A Million, which used racist and homophobic slurs and denigrated immigrants.

At the time, Dr Charles Fairchild, associate professor of popular music at the University of Sydney, said these kinds of re-evaluations of pop culture’s past were “going to keep cropping up”.