Ben Affleck was embarrassed to discover that one of his ancestors owned slaves—and he successfully lobbied the producer of the PBS show Finding Your Roots to exclude that detail from an episode that aired in October. The Oscar winner acknowledged as much in a Facebook post on Tuesday night, after both hacked Sony emails revealed the behind-the-scenes deliberations about his requests and PBS and WNET/Thirteen in New York announced a subsequent investigation into the decision to censor material.
“After an exhaustive search of my ancestry for Finding Your Roots, it was discovered that one of my distant relatives was an owner of slaves.
“I didn’t want any television show about my family to include a guy who owned slaves. I was embarrassed. The very thought left a bad taste in my mouth.
“Skip decided what went into the show. I lobbied him the same way I lobby directors about what takes of mine I think they should use. This is the collaborative creative process. Skip agreed with me on the slave owner but made other choices I disagreed with. In the end, it’s his show and I knew that going in. I’m proud to be his friend and proud to have participated.
“It’s important to remember that this isn’t a news program. Finding Your Roots is a show where you voluntarily provide a great deal of information about your family, making you quite vulnerable. The assumption is that they will never be dishonest but they will respect your willingness to participate and not look to include things you think would embarrass your family.
“I regret my initial thoughts that the issue of slavery not be included in the story. We deserve neither credit nor blame for our ancestors and the degree of interest in this story suggests that we are, as a nation, still grappling with the terrible legacy of slavery. It is an examination well worth continuing. I am glad that my story, however indirectly, will contribute to that discussion. While I don’t like that the guy is an ancestor, I am happy that aspect of our country’s history is being talked about.”
The issue came to light when Wikileaks published an archived collection of the emails and private documents that had been stolen by hackers in 2014. Among them was an email correspondence between the show’s executive producer, Henry “Skip” Louis Gates Jr., and Sony CEO Michael Lynton. “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 wrote. “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?”
“I would take it out if no one knows,” responded Lynton. “But if it gets out that you are editing the material based on this kind of sensitivity then it gets tricky.”
PBS and WNET announced their plans for an internal review today. “If the decision to drop the segment was based on Mr. Affleck’s request, it was and is unacceptable,” said WNET’s vice president for programming Stephen Segaller. “Doing so without Thirteen’s knowledge of those circumstances is also unacceptable.”