Ben Affleck and Slavery

Affleck Finding Your Roots

Surely, you have heard something about Ben Affleck’s recent collision with history. If not, One Thing after Another is more than happy to fill you in. . . .

You may or may not have heard of a PBS show entitled Finding Your Roots, hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a prominent professor of African-American Studies at Harvard University. The show uses genealogy and genetic testing to investigate the family history of celebrity guests. The research is compiled in a so-called “book of life,” and the highlight of most episodes has Gates assisting the guests in understanding their book. The second season ended in November 2014, and celebrities have included Harry Connick, Jr., Barbara Walters, Kevin Bacon, Robert Downey, Jr., Samuel L Jackson, Condoleezza Rice, Martha Stewart, Stephen King, Derek Jeter, Ken Burns, Anderson Cooper, Sting, George Stephanopoulos, Deval Patrick, and . . . Ben Affleck.

Our story begins, strangely enough, last year with the hacking of Sony by an organization calling itself the Guardians of Peace. The United States government alleges that the Guardians of Peace were really working for North Korea, but a number of cyber security experts have questioned that charge. Whatever the case, a number of Sony’s hacked emails and documents ended up on the WikiLeaks web site last week in an easily searchable database. News organizations immediately began trawling through the mass of material, and the Daily Mail eventually found an interesting exchange between Gates and Michael Lynton, chief of Sony Pictures, concerning Ben Affleck’s appearance on the show.

According to the emails (which were exchanged in July 2014, about three months before the episode aired in October), Finding Your Roots discovered that Affleck had an ancestor who owned slaves, and the movie star was putting pressure on Gates and PBS to omit that fact from the show.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3043803/Ben-Affleck-wanted-slave-owner-ancestor-censored-Finding-Roots-PBS-documentary-s-host-covered-leaked-emails-reveal.html

Gates wrote to 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. We’ve never had anyone ever try to censor or edit what we found. He’s a megastar. What do we do?” Lynton responded with the following observation: “On the doc the big question is who knows that the material is in the doc and is being taken out. 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.” In other words, it all depended on how many people at PBS knew about Affleck’s ancestor. Both agreed that too many people at PBS knew about Affleck’s ancestor to keep the finding a secret. In subsequent messages, Gates recognized that editing out the ancestor at Affleck’s request would violate PBS rules. Not only that, but he understood that if the news ever did leak out, it would embarrass Affleck and compromise the show’s integrity. How prescient!

In the event, Affleck’s slave-owning ancestor did not appear in the episode (which ran in October 2014), and Gates’ worst fears came true. As a result of the Sony leak, Affleck has been embarrassed and the show’s integrity has been compromised.

You can see a preview of Affleck’s episode here:

Once the story broke, Gates offered the following explanations for his actions on the PBS web site:

http://www.pbs.org/about/news/archive/2015/statements-finding-your-roots/

The slave-owning ancestor, Gates argues, ended up on the cutting-room floor for the sake of offering “the most compelling narrative.” According to Gates, he and the producers did not accede to Affleck’s request to protect him. Rather, they sought to produce the most interesting story.

Affleck’s explanation, which appeared on his Facebook page, is somewhat different:

Affleck’s points amount to the following. He was embarrassed by his ancestor, and he tried to influence the PBS producers in the same way that he has influenced his directors in the past. He saw nothing improper in this behavior since Finding Your Roots is not a news program and therefore does not have a responsibility to present the whole truth. At the end of the day, of course, he regrets his decision.

Now that the program has blown up in everybody’s face, PBS has launched an internal investigation into the circumstances associated with the production of this episode:

http://www.pbs.org/ombudsman/blogs/ombudsman/2015/04/21/who-knew-not-us-pbs-now-says-about-roots-controversy/

A broad spectrum of reactions characterizes the web’s attitude toward this story. On one end, we have the following piece by Brian Lowry at Variety:

http://variety.com/2015/tv/columns/ben-affleck-pbs-show-slavery-backlash-1201477211/

Lowry describes the whole incident as a tempest in a teapot. The gist of his argument is that Finding Your Roots is a “a pandering showcase for celebrities to explore their genealogy” and “a lightweight gimmick, one that PBS has given an imprimatur of quality because of its adjacency to the first-rate documentaries that the service airs.” The only reason the story has attracted so much attention, Lowry charges, is because of the way it was leaked, widespread dislike of Affleck (only compounded by his prima donna behavior), and a desire among conservatives to get rid of PBS.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have Soraya Nadia McDonald at the Washington Post, making a very different argument:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/style-blog/wp/2015/04/19/even-pbs-isnt-immune-to-hollywoods-big-pr-machine-or-the-influence-of-ben-affleck/

It is difficult to summarize briefly McDonald’s position, but the main thrust of her argument is that when you add Affleck’s wish to protect his “brand” to PBS’s desire to obtain a larger and younger audience, this kind of thing was bound to happen. And this kind of thing, she argues, is bad. Because of its distinct mission, PBS has a duty to serve the public interest. Unfortunately, the public interest is not served by gliding over the issue of slavery and presenting what amounts to a sugar-coated version of Affleck’s family tree.

One Thing after Another, as usual, judges as a historian. While Lowry and McDonald do not see eye-to-eye on the overall significance of this Finding Your Roots episode, they do agree on one thing: PBS’s desire to obtain higher ratings by developing a show of this sort left it vulnerable to such an incident. PBS found itself confronted by an age-old question: how does one present educational material in an attractive and interesting fashion? PBS’s mission consists of creating

content that educates, informs and inspires. To do this, PBS offers programming that expands the minds of children, documentaries that open up new worlds, non-commercialized news programs that keep citizens informed on world events and cultures and programs that expose America to the worlds of music, theater, dance and art.

PBS also describes itself as “America’s largest classroom, the nation’s largest stage for the arts and a trusted window to the world.” (See http://www.pbs.org/about/corporate-information/ and http://www.pbs.org/about/corporate-information/mission/.)

And yet, what good was this classroom or stage if no one was watching? PBS naturally felt the pressure of obtaining higher ratings.

When it came to Finding Your Roots, the public broadcaster opted for “edutainment” (One Thing after Another’s favorite new word) which ended up being a volatile mix of education and entertainment. For this reason, the various players in the story saw their roles very differently. In his explanation of what happened, Gates the professor wrote about “editorial integrity” and unlocking “new ways to learn about our past.” In other words, Gates subscribed to the idea of the classroom. Affleck the actor wrote of lobbying Gates as if the latter were a director and reminded everyone that Finding Your Roots “isn’t a news program.” From Affleck’s perspective, the show was, well, “a show.”

Even if PBS created an unstable situation that was bound to compromise itself, one cannot help but be disappointed with the principals involved. Affleck described himself as growing up in a politically active family of “left-wing Democrats” (his mother, as Finding Your Roots revealed, was a Freedom Rider in Mississippi in the 1960s). He of all people ought to have realized how a discussion regarding his ancestor could have contributed to a dialogue about slavery—something that is still very relevant in this day and age. When compared to the reactions of other celebrities who have been informed that their ancestors were slaveholders (Anderson Cooper, to name one), Affleck’s refusal to own his family’s past seems graceless.

Gates’ role in this incident is almost inexplicable. He is literary scholar, not a historian, and he famously wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times about “ending the slavery blame-game” (i.e. African-Americans should not use their enslavement to obtain reparations from the United States government). Still, he must be thoroughly aware of the destructive role that slavery has played in American life, and he of all people ought to have seen how fruitful a discussion of Affleck’s ancestor could have been. Gates’ emails indicate that he knew Affleck’s request ran contrary to the spirit (if not the editorial rules) of the show. It seems clear that he was cowed by Affleck’s “megastar” status, and Lowry is probably not far off the mark when he describes Gates’ position as “spineless.” Then again, Gates might have felt his position was fundamentally undermined by the show’s straddling of education and entertainment.

One Thing after Another is both depressed and cheered by this incident. On the one hand, it is clear that PBS has not fulfilled its role as classroom, and an interesting opportunity to discuss slavery has been missed. Gates claimed he left out Affleck’s slave-owning ancestor for the sake of presenting a more interesting narrative. But what better captures the great paradox that is American history than the ancestry of a man whose mother was a Freedom Rider and whose great-great-great-grandfather (on his mother’s side, no less) was a slaveholder? What better encapsulation of the American experience could there be? Unfortunately, all the brouhaha about Finding Your Roots has revolved around Affleck and Gates’ dishonesty, not the issue they sought to elide.

And yet, there is perhaps some cause for hope. Affleck believed the information about his ancestor was so powerful that he had to keep it under wraps. One Thing after Another advises that in contemplating this incident, you should not seek to emulate Affleck’s attempt to suppress history. Rather, like he did, you should recognize its power.

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