In a literal and figurative battle of the current Batman versus the show, Finding Your Roots, Ben Affleck has pressured this Skip Gates-PBS special to suppress information uncovered that he is a descendant of slave owners. In a released statement on his Facebook page, Affleck admits that he pressured Gates to omit the family history that left him with embarrassment and “a bad taste in my mouth”. Slavery probably leaves a lot of Americans with a bad taste in their mouths but it is an ever-present part of history that cannot and should not be re-written for comfort’s sake.
Thanks to last year’s Sony hack that uncovered a treasure trove of “inside-Hollywood” ugliness, it was exposed that after finding out his family had once owned slaves, Affleck pressured producer, Dr. Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, to omit that information from the show. In a July 2014 email exchange with Sony executive, Michael Lynton, Gates laid out the dilemma that for the first time a show guest was asking him to edit out information uncovered in their investigations. This was not the first occasion of slave-owning ancestry for a guest; Ken Burns, Anderson Cooper, and even Pastor Rick Warren had this dubious component of their history uncovered. Gates never mentions Affleck directly in the emails but does refer to the subject as a “megastar who is Batman.” This left no doubt who the subject was since at the time of the taping, Affleck was filming Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Gates, a respected historian, continues in the email to express his reservations about doing something that would “compromise our integrity” and violate PBS rules, “even for Batman.” Obviously, the megastar won the contest between Batman V. Roots in that the coverage of Affleck being a descendant of slave owners was conspicuously omitted from the airing of his PBS episode. Gates and PBS have released statements saying that producers chose the “most interesting” aspects of the megastar’s history for the edited version of the show. Affleck fortunately had at least 40 minutes (actual programming time in a 60-minute network show) of interesting ancestry including a Revolutionary War hero and a really great, great-grandfather who was a celebrated occultist. In a historical tidbit that relieved some of Affleck’s white shame, his mother did at least march for civil rights in the Freedom Summer of 1964.
PBS went on to reiterate Skip Gate’s “editorial integrity” and assured the public that Gates and his producers chose footage from the 10 hours of taping that presented the most “compelling narrative.” At that time, PBS representatives were unaware of the hacked email exchange between Gates and Sony.
Affleck, in his apologetic mea culpa on Facebook, opined that people do not deserve “credit or blame” for the dastardly deeds of their past relatives. He did not point out in this apology that he has black friends on Facebook, a fact that might have better demonstrated his bold antipathy toward racism.
In the case of Batman v. Roots, Affleck, hiding the fact that he was a descendant of slave owners, represents the cover up being worse than the crime. He missed an opportunity to actually do something constructive to further a perhaps healing narrative in race relations. All Americans deal with the painful legacy of the “peculiar institution” of slavery. African-Americans do not have the privilege of changing their scripts when faced with this uncomfortable truth. In Affleck’s defense, the past cannot be changed. It is possible, however, to change the future by facing the past. In that instant, the content of one’s character becomes more important than the color of one’s skin, as Martin Luther King once dreamed.
Opinion by Chris Marion
Photo by CSIS | Center For Strategic & International Studies – Flickr License