Hollywood megastar Ben Affleck requested that Harvard professor and documentary filmmaker Henry Louis Gates Jr. censor references to one of his slave-owning ancestors, emails released this week by Wikileaks revealed.
The emails, sent between Gates and Sony CEO Michael Lynton on July 22, 2014, also show that the two conspired to cover up Affleck’s censorship request.
Gates, a prominent black scholar, noted that none of the other celebrities who agreed to be interviewed for his PBS documentary, “Finding Your Roots,” had tried to censor information about their ancestors. Gates dug through genealogical records of various celebrities, including Anderson Cooper, Valerie Jarrett, Robert Downey Jr. and many more.
The emails also reveal that Gates acknowledged that agreeing to censor the documentary would be a “violation” of PBS’ rules.
The email chain does not explicitly name Affleck. But Gates referred to “Batman” and to a trip he was planning to make to Detroit to speak with a well-known celebrity. Affleck stars in the latest “Batman” movie, which was filmed in the Motor City. Gates did acknowledge in a statement to The Daily Caller that Affleck was the megastar in question.
In a message to Lynton, Gates called his situation with Affleck a “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. 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?”
Lynton wrote back that “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. Again, all things being equal I would definitely take it out,” Lynton advised.
“As for the doc: all my producers would know; his PR agency the same as mine, and everyone there has been involved trying to resolve this; my agent at CAA knows,” Gates replied. “And PBS would know. To do this would be a violation of PBS rules, actually, even for Batman.”
Lynton responded, writing “then it is tricky because it may get out that you made the change and it comes down to editorial integrity.”
“It would embarrass him and compromise our integrity,” Gates wrote. “I think he is getting very bad advice. I’ve offered to fly to Detroit, where he is filming, to talk it through.”
“Yeah, the past is the past,” Lynton wrote.
Gates seemed puzzled by Affleck’s request, noting that his ancestor “wasn’t even a bad guy.” He also referenced other celebrities who had no problem with discussing their slave-owning ancestors.
“Now Anderson Cooper’s ancestor was a real s.o.b.; one of his slaves actually murdered him. Of course, the slave was promptly hanged. And Anderson didn’t miss a beat about that. Once we open the door to censorship, we lose control of the brand.”
Gates’ segment on Affleck did indeed avoid mentioning the actor’s slave-owning relative. Instead, it focused on Affleck’s less controversial and more heroic ancestors — including a great-great-great grandfather involved in the occult and his mother, Ann Boldt, a civil rights activist in the 1960s.
“We wanted to see what more we could tell Ben Affleck about the roots of his family’s interest in social justice,” Gates says in the opening of his segment on Affleck.
The Daily Caller sought comment from Gates about his interaction with Affleck. The professor forwarded the request to PBS, the producer of the documentary.
A PBS spokeswoman provided a statement from Gates:
The mission of “Finding Your Roots” is to find and share interesting stories from our celebrity guests’ ancestries and use those stories to unlock news ways to learn about our past. We are very grateful to all of our guests for allowing us into their personal lives and have told hundreds of stories in this series including many about slave ancestors—never shying away from chapters of a family’s past that might be unpleasant. Ultimately, I maintain editorial control on all of my projects and, with my producers, decide what will make for the most compelling program. In the case of Mr. Affleck — we focused on what we felt were the most interesting aspects of his ancestry—including a Revolutionary War ancestor, a 3rd great–grandfather who was an occult enthusiast, and his mother who marched for Civil Rights during the Freedom Summer of 1964.
PBS also released a statement:
It is clear from the exchange how seriously Professor Gates takes editorial integrity. He has told us that after reviewing approximately ten hours of footage for the episode, he and his producers made an independent editorial judgment to choose the most compelling narrative. The range and depth of the stories on Finding Your Roots speak for themselves.
Affleck has recently become involved in activist work across the globe, including in Africa. And in October, he engaged in a high-profile exchange with HBO talk show host Bill Maher about Islam. In the exchange, Affleck called Maher’s views “gross, racist, disgusting.”