This week’s celebrity tempest in a teapot is brought to you by Ben Affleck, Henry Louis Gates Jr., PBS, and Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton. Oh, and WikiLeaks, which, if it had hands, would be rubbing them together in adolescent glee.
The website, whose editor in chief, Julian Assange, is still living in political asylum at the Ecuadoran Embassy in London, recently released tens of thousands of documents left over from the Sony hack late last year — the ones that the original hackers (North Koreans or whoever; the jury’s still out) hadn’t bothered to make public. Among those memos is a back-and-forth between Harvard professor Gates and Lynton about whether to expose the fact that Affleck had ancestors who owned slaves on Gates’s PBS documentary series, “Finding Your Roots.”
The documentary show probes the genealogy of famous people who agree to discuss the findings on air. Sony doesn’t have a stake in “Finding Your Roots”; Gates appears to have simply reached out to Lynton for advice. The e-mails, from the summer of 2014, before the series’ second-season premiere, show the two men dithering about what to do about a certain A-list star’s request.
“Here’s my dilemma,” writes Gates, “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?”
Gates adds that “to do this would be a violation of PBS rules, actually, even for Batman.” (Affleck is currently shooting the Warner Bros. film “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.”) Lynton advises, “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.”
Gates argues back, reasoning that if the issue became public knowledge, “It would embarrass [the star] and compromise our integrity. . . . Once we open the door to censorship, we lose control of the brand.” And yet, when the Affleck episode of “Finding Your Roots” aired on PBS on Oct. 14, the focus was on a Civil War ancestor who became an occultist, a Revolutionary War forebear, and Affleck’s mother, who was a Freedom Rider during the civil rights era. No mention of slavers.
Of course, the information did come out, and there has been the expected media pig pile. PBS has announced an in-house investigation. Gates has released a statement that says, in part, “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.”
Affleck apologized this week with a lengthy statement of his own, the gist of which says, “I didn’t want any television show about my family to include a guy who owned slaves. I was embarrassed. The very thought left a bad taste in my mouth. . . . I regret my initial thoughts that the issue of slavery not be included.”
It’s mortifying to all involved, to be sure. On the other hand, it’s a nonstory if you profess to not care about celebrities or how any of us come to terms with inconvenient family histories. That said, there are still small but sharp lessons to be learned here.
First of all, the truth is a splinter that, no matter how deeply embedded, will eventually work its way to the surface. This wasn’t always necessarily true, but it certainly is in the Internet era. I’ll leave aside the issue of whether the Sony documents should have been made public; the fact remains they were. If any corporation or citizen still believes their every keystroke might not someday be seen by the world, this should dispel all doubts.
The revelations of the Sony hack aren’t criminal but they bare the way people talk and think when they believe no one’s listening — the stupid racial jokes and celeb trashing that cost Sony Pictures cochairwoman Amy Pascal her job; the kowtowing to movie-star clout evident in the exchange between Gates and Lynton. The only way forward is to assume there are no secrets in American business, or in American life, anymore. This is our brave new world. Get used to it.
As for Affleck — well, our feelings about him are complicated. As a famous son of Boston, he is subject to the culturally entrenched way we’ve always treated our success stories, praising them to the skies when they reflect us well, kicking them to the curb whenever they act “better than they should.” Arguably, Affleck has exported this double-edged response to the world, and it’s not like he hasn’t seemed to invite it. For every “Good Will Hunting” or “Argo,” there’s a “Gigli” or a “Daredevil”; for every “Gone Baby Gone,” there’s a “Pearl Harbor.” We love it when our local heroes make good. We love it a little too much when they fail.
I interviewed Affleck a few years ago, during the promotional tour for “Argo.” That’s relevant only for an insight I gleaned in the process. With me, a writer for the local paper of record, he was earnest, articulate, thoughtful — altogether professional. Later, with younger reporters for the alternative papers and online outlets, he was a regular bro, chummy and full of cusses. A bit of a Zelig, in other words, tailoring his persona to the audience in front of him. He wanted, in short, to be liked. Given the beatings he has taken in the press over the years, can you blame him?
This is called being human. I’ve done the same and doubtless so have you. The problem comes when insecurity about what others think of us causes us to airbrush unfortunate facts. The stain isn’t that Affleck had ancestors who owned slaves. It’s that he thought we’d think less of him — or his celebrity brand — if we knew. And now, poor schmo, we do.
This also gets to what we deserve to know about famous people versus what we think we’re entitled to know, whether that’s family history or business correspondence. What’s truly personal and what’s shared history? Other guests on “Finding Your Roots” have confronted the fact of slave-owning ancestors: Burns, newsman Anderson Cooper, actor Bill Paxton, ex-Yankee Derek Jeter. There’s a probability that any American, black or white, whose ancestry on these shores predates the Civil War has this particular skeleton in his or her closet.
Which of course is why the closet has to be opened, especially by people we raise up for adoration and scrutiny. Affleck should know that, and Skip Gates should especially know that; the abiding mystery of this particular dust-up is how and why the professorial producer choked.
We prefer to think that the sins of America’s past happened to other people’s great-grandparents. The truth is that we only move forward when we realize we all share the same DNA. Cultural and literal. Celebrity and commoner. Good and evil.