Ben Affleck regrets asking the genealogy show “Finding Your Roots” to not mention that his ancestor was a slave owner, according to a statement released by the actor and director late Tuesday. The comment, posted to Facebook, came on the same day PBS and WNET -- the networks that air “Finding Your Roots” -- said that they would launch an internal review into the show’s editorial practices.
“I regret my initial thoughts that the issue of slavery not be included in the story,” Affleck wrote. “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." The episode featuring Affleck first aired in October.
Affleck admitted to his motivations for the request. “I didn't want any television show about my family to include a guy who owned slaves,” he wrote. “I was embarrassed. The very thought left a bad taste in my mouth.”
The whistleblower site Wikileaks exposed Affleck’s request when it published emails between the show’s host Henry Louis Gates and Sony Pictures co-chairman and chief executive Michael Lynton. The emails, which were part of a larger leak of correspondence between Sony executives made public late last year, were made searchable online on Thursday.
In the leaked emails, Gates asked for advice from Lynton about whether or not to honor Affleck’s request for the omission. The Harvard professor noted that while other stars profiled on the show — including documentary director Ken Burns and CNN host Anderson Cooper — also had slave-owning ancestors, Affleck’s request was the first of its kind.
Lynton replied to Gates by writing that he “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.”
By July 22, Gates appeared to decide against honoring the actor’s request, writing that if such censorship came to light, “It would embarrass him and compromise our integrity. I think he is getting very bad advice," according to the Associated Press. He added that “Once we open the door to censorship, we lose control of the brand.”
PBS and WNET began investigating the incident on April 18, according to the statement released Tuesday.
In his statement, Affleck placed the editorial decision-making squarely on the shoulders of Gates, equating his request to the way he lobbies the directors with whom he works. He added that while the host of the show agreed to omit the detail about the slave ownership, Gates also made other decisions that the actor disagreed with.
After the censorship came to light, Gates told the Associated Press that the show often uncovers more about their subject's past than can be included. For Affleck, “we decided to go with the story we used about his fascinating ancestor who became an occultist following the Civil War. This guy’s story was totally unusual: we had never discovered someone like him before,” Gates wrote in a statement to the AP.
In his Facebook post, Affleck noted that the controversy that has resulted from the editorial decision shows that the country is “still grappling with the terrible legacy of slavery.” “It is an examination well worth continuing,” he wrote. “ 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.”