fb-pixel Skip to main content

Ben Affleck needs a reality check

Ben Affleck acknowledges that he asked Henry Louis Gates Jr. to remove references in a PBS series to Affleck’s slave-owning ancestor.Getty Images/file 2015/Getty

THERE SHOULD be no Oscars for this performance. Just Razzies all around.

PBS is conducting an internal review after learning that producers of “Finding Your Roots” left out family history that actor Ben Affleck was unhappy to find he had. The actor is now expressing regrets for his role in pressuring the program’s host, Henry Louis Gates Jr., from revealing that there was once a slave owner in the Affleck family tree.

The whole mess shows what happens when actors and their acolytes confuse Hollywood with real life.

In Affleck’s regular line of work, artistic license is accepted and, indeed, rewarded. “Argo,” the film he directed and produced, won an Academy Award for Best Picture in 2013, even though the script distorted actual events. “If it seems too Hollywood to be true, that’s because it is,” wrote NPR critic David Edelstein at the time.


But taking artistic license with family history is a different matter. That’s what Affleck sought to do when he asked Gates to leave out the revelation that he had a slave-owning ancestor. Affleck’s effort, first reported by the Daily Mail, became public after WikiLeaks published e-mails that were part of the Sony Entertainment hack.

Seeking advice from Sony Pictures chief executive Michael Lynton, Gates wrote that “one of our guests has asked us to edit out something about one of his ancestors – the fact that he owned slaves. . . . We’ve never had anyone ever try to censor or edit what we found. He’s a megastar. What do we do?”

Responded Lynton: ”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.”

Gates writes back, “To do this would be a violation of PBS rules, even for ‘Batman.’ ”


Gates and Lynton both seem to agree it would be a bad idea. Yet when the segment aired on Oct. 14, it did not contain the information about Affleck’s slave-owning ancestor. Instead, it focused on a Revolutionary War ancestor, a great-grandfather who was an occult enthusiast, and Affleck’s mother, who was a civil rights “freedom rider” in 1964. In initial statements, Gates and PBS both denied any censorship was involved.

Now Affleck has come forward, via his Facebook page, to acknowledge that he lobbied Gates “the same way I lobby directors about what takes of mine I think they should use.” Gates’s documentary series, he argued, “isn’t a news program. You voluntarily provide a great deal of information about your family, making you quite vulnerable. The assumption is that they will never be dishonest but they will respect your willingness to participate and not look to include things you think would embarrass your family.”

This Cambridge homeboy needs a reality check. You can edit truth out of movies, but not out of family history.


Dan Wasserman: Affleck at the makeup counter

Affleck expresses regret about efforts to hide slave-owning ancestor

E-mail shows Ben Affleck asked PBS to censor slave-owning ancestry