Actor says he felt ashamed
Affleck apologizes for urging PBS show to conceal his slave-owning kin.
Ben Affleck says he’s sorry about trying to conceal a branch of his family tree that included a slave owner.
The movie star and director — whose family history was examined in September on the PBS genealogy series “Finding Your Roots” — urged the producers to delete a reference to an ancestor who had owned slaves. As an uproar ensued this week and hacked emails about the dust-up were published on WikiLeaks, Affleck took to Facebook late Tuesday to apologize and explain.
“I didn’t want any television show about my family to include a guy who owned slaves,” Affleck wrote. “I was embarrassed. The very thought left a bad taste in my mouth.”
In hindsight, he added, “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’s worth noting that other celebrities interviewed for “Finding Your Roots” had an easier time grappling with the subject than Affleck did. Derek Jeter, Anderson Cooper and filmmaker Ken Burns discussed their slave-owning ancestors.
“It’s a common story,” said Darnell Hunt, director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA. “Lots of Americans have distant relatives who were implicated one way or another in the institution of slavery.
“What’s more interesting,” Hunt added, “is the decision not to talk about this on a show that’s devoted to tracing one’s roots.”
The controversy has made Affleck a lightning rod for criticism, especially given that his outspoken liberal politics have made him an enemy to conservatives.
But it’s also brought unwelcome attention to PBS and WNET-TV, the New York member station that produces “Finding Your Roots.”
The public broadcaster said Tuesday that it will conduct an internal review after questions were raised about the Affleck episode.
“In order to gather the facts to determine whether or not all of PBS’ editorial standards were observed ... we began an internal review,” read a statement from PBS and WNET.
The Affleck matter came to light in emails that were hacked from Sony last year and more recently distributed widely through the website WikiLeaks.
Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr., the Harvard professor who hosts the series about celebrities getting in touch with their family trees, was troubled by Affleck’s request to delete mention of a slave-owning relative. Identifying Affleck only as a “megastar,” he asked for advice from friend and Sony boss Michael Lynton, who advised him to accede to the celebrity’s request but cautioned that the situation could get “tricky” if word got out. The episode aired in September.
Once the matter became public late last week, Gates issued a statement saying that he retained full editorial control over “Finding Your Roots” and that the decision was made to focus on the “most compelling” elements of the Affleck family’s past. That included a Revolutionary War ancestor and a mother who marched for civil rights, but no slave owner. Separately, PBS said Friday that it chalked up the Aff leck omission to “independent editorial judgment” and added that the “range and depth of stories on ‘Finding Your Roots’ speak for themselves.”
But Michael Getler, the PBS ombudsman, blasted the responses from Gates and PBS as “not credible.” On Tuesday, he added a new column assailing Gates’ decision as a “bad one” and noting that the scholar had failed to notify PBS of the Affleck issue when it first arose. The network, meanwhile, was “asleep at the switch,” he wrote.
For his part, Affleck said that “Finding Your Roots” is “not a news program” and that he approached his request the same way he might lobby a director about which takes to use during postproduction on a movie. “This is the collaborative creative process,” Affleck wrote.
But even after all the controversy, Affleck says he’s proud he participated in “Finding Your Roots.” “While I don’t like that the guy is an ancestor [of mine], I am happy that aspect of our country’s history is being talked about,” he wrote.
BEN AFFLECK had his family history examined on “Finding Your Roots.”