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Ben Affleck Apologizes for Telling PBS Not to Mention Slave-Owning Ancestor

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Updated April 22, 2015


By Sheryl Estrada

Photo by Shutterstock

An email published on WikiLeaks reveals actor Ben Affleck, who was a guest on the PBS documentary series Finding Your Roots, did not want his slave-owning ancestor mentioned.

The email exchange, dated July 22, 2014, was between the program’s host Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Sony Chief Executive Michael Lynton. This served as just one of thousands of emails made available through the Sony Pictures Entertainment hack last year, many of which exposed the racist banter of Hollywood executives and the sheer oddness of Tinsletown.

One of the most high-profile email exchanges was between former Sony Pictures CEO Amy Pascal and Oscar-winning film producer Scott Rudin both mocking President Obama. The exchange resulted in Pascal being fired. On April 16, WikiLeaks put a collection of the scandalous emails into a searchable online archive, which Sony refers to as”indexing of stolen employee and other private and privileged information.”

Gates, a Harvard University scholar, filmmaker, and journalist, spearheads the series Finding Your Roots, which helps famouspeople discover generations of long-lost relatives by utilizing a team of genealogists.

In the email exchange, Gates grapples with the request of a celebrity who wants to rewrite history like a movie script.

“Here’s my dilemma:confidentially, for the first time, one of our guests has asked us to edit out something about one of his ancestors–the fact that he owned slaves,” Gates typed. “Now, four or five of our guests this season descend from slave owners, including Ken Burns.We’ve never had anyone ever try to censor or edit what we found. He’s a megastar.What do we do”

Lyton responded, “I would take it out if no one knows, but if it gets out that you are editing the material based on this kind of sensitivity then it gets tricky Again, all things being equal I would definitely take it out.”

In the exchange Gates said he thought “Batman” was getting bad advice and was willing to travel to Detroit to speak with him. At the time, Affleck was filming Batman v. Superman: Dawn Of Justice in Motor City. Gates also mentioned changing the information would “embarrass [Affleck] and compromise our integrity.”

The episode featuring the Academy Award-winning actor aired on Oct. 14, with no mention of slave ownership in his family.

In a statement on the PBS website, Gates affirmed they did not remove information about the slave-owner, but decided to focus on more interesting relatives.

“Ultimately, I maintain editorial control on all of my projects and, with my producers, decide what will make for the most compelling program,” he said. “In the case of Mr. Affleck we focused on what we felt were the most interesting aspects of his ancestryincluding a Revolutionary War ancestor, a 3rd greatgrandfather who was an occult enthusiast, and his mother who marched for Civil Rights during the Freedom Summer of 1964.”

PBS stands behind Gates’ decision.

“It is clear from the exchange how seriously Professor Gates takes editorial integrity,” the PBS said in a statement.

However, one must wonder if Hollywood trumped history. Even though Gates values ethics and integrity, the priority for some actors, agents and executives is what they perceive to be best for their brand. He chose to showcase celebrities on the program, which means a request to modify organic information for their brand’s sake could likely be made.

As Gates mentioned in the email exchanges, when Anderson Cooper was on the show it was revealed his ancestor was a “real s.o.b.; one of his slaves actually murdered him.Of course, the slave was promptly hanged.”

Yet Anderson had no problem with this being revealed. Perhaps it’s because he understands its relevance to history.

Slavery exists as an integral part of history and not only Black history, but also American history. And as Americans we must learn from the triumphs and failures of our ancestors, including thepainful legacy of slavery.It would have beenadmirable if Affleck had chosen to reveal that ancestor in his family’s lineage. He could have served as an example of change in his family, rather than just being embarrassed.

Tuesday night, Affleck issued an apology on Facebook:

In a statement, PBS and WNET said they are conducting an internal review:”In order to gather the facts to determine whether or not all of PBS’ editorial standards were observed, on Saturday, April 18, we began an internal review. We have been moving forward deliberately yet swiftly to conduct this review.”
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