By denying unsavory parts of his ancestral past, Ben Affleck put an entire program in jeopardy at PBS. Finding Your Roots is a window into the past. With the help of genealogists, Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. takes high-profile guests like Affleck, Anderson Cooper, Stephen King and Barbara Walters on a guided tour through the parts of their past that would normally be inaccessible to them.
Unfortunately, Season 3 of this illuminating series has been put on hold because Affleck’s desire to hide a slave-owning ancestor compromised the series’ editorial integrity.
During the now infamous Sony breach, emails between Gates Jr. and Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton revealing Affleck’s request for the series to cut parts of the episode revealing one of his ancestors had been a slave owner to avoid embarrassment were leaked.
By not owning his past, Affleck used his celebrity to create an ethical breach for a renowned scholar and, unbeknownst to PBS, to put the brand name of the United States most valued educational channel in jeopardy.
The fallout of Gates and Sony’s decision to give in to Affleck has led to an internal investigation. Entertainment Weekly reports PBS is refusing to air a third season or discuss a fourth until an outside genealogist is brought in, and additional fact checkers are added to the staff.
What did Affleck learn from this debacle? Hopefully, he learned everyone has a past, and the people who make up a person’s lineage are part of who you are, but they are not all of you. For his part, Affleck admits to regretting his decision.
“I regret my initial thoughts that the issue of slavery not be included in the story,” Affleck wrote on his Facebook page. “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.”
By finally owning up to his mistake, Affleck has at the very least proven that every person’s past is bigger than one single person. For Affleck to think the audience would think less of him or his family because one of his ancestors owned slaves is both sad and a little silly.
No one’s lineage is spotless. There are slave owners, Nazis, murderers — all sorts of people that you wouldn’t want to spend time with — who make up a person’s past and who make up the collective past. Trying to erase them doesn’t change what they did, it only adds to a larger cultural problem of denying hard truths about the past.
Finding Your Roots showcased multiple other members of Affleck’s family, from his activist mother to a family member who was a devout occultist. Hopefully, what Affleck will take away from this experience is that by owning up to a relative he never knew about and who made him feel squeamish, he could have shown viewers and his fans that delving into one’s past means taking a chance on finding something you don’t like.
However, the thing you don’t like can still foster a meaningful discourse. We are all in this crazy world together, and if we cannot talk candidly about the past and its realities, then there can be no moving forward.
If one good thing came out of this debacle, it’s that Affleck’s full story came out, and he got to see the world did not stop spinning. No one thinks less of him because one of his ancestors was a slave owner, but I think there is a sense of disappointment that he tried so hard to cover it up.
At least Finding Your Roots can move forward now, and future guests can look to Affleck as an example of what not to do. The past is a strange and dark place, but every single one of us has one, and there is no shame in that.