Ben Affleck Asked Harvard Prof to Remove Slaveholding Ancestor From His PBS Show

Ben Affleck testifying before a Senate subcommittee hearing on March 26, 2015.
Ben Affleck testifying before a Senate subcommittee hearing on March 26, 2015. –REUTERS

Ben Affleck was not happy to discover that one of his ancestors owned slaves while filming Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s Finding Your Roots series, and asked Gates to edit out the information, according to leaked Sony emails.

Gates told Boston.com on Friday that the show removed the reference to the ancestor because “in the last season, we had several stories about ancestors who owned slaves and we couldn’t use them all.’’

“Ben Affleck’s ancestor’s story just wasn’t as interesting as the others that made the cut,’’ Gates added. “And so we decided to go with a story about his ancestor following the Civil War instead. It made for a much stronger story arc.’’

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Last July, Gates emailed Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton and mentioned that “one of our guests has asked us to edit out something about one of his ancestors — the fact that he owned slaves.’’ Affleck’s name is never used in the emails, but he is referred to as “Batman’’ and is said to be filming in Detroit in July 2014. Affleck will play Batman in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, which was filmed in Detroit last summer.

In the emails, Gates appeared to consider Affleck’s request, even though he acknowledged that to do so would be against the policies of PBS, which produced and aired the series.

“To do this would be a violation of PBS rules, actually, even for Batman,’’ Gates wrote.

“I would take it out if no one knows,’’ Lynton replied.

Gates then said that several parties were already aware of the situation. He said he and Affleck had the same PR agency, Sunshine Sachs, and that “everyone there has been involved trying to resolve this.’’ Lynton then responded that removing Affleck’s ancestor would be “tricky’’ and a “bad idea.’’

“It would embarrass him and compromise our integrity,’’ if the situation became public, Gates wrote.

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“I think he is getting very bad advice,’’ Gates added. “I’ve offered to fly to Detroit, where he is filming, to talk it through.’’

In another email, Gates wrote: “Once we open the door to censorship, we lose control of the brand.’’

While the emails suggest that Gates decided not to edit out the segment at Affleck’s request, no mention of his slave owner ancestor ended up in the episode. Instead, the episode featured Affleck’s other relatives, including a Revolutionary War-era ancestor, a great-grandfather who was interested in the occult, and his mother, who marched in the Civil Rights Movement.

Sunshine Sachs did not respond to request for a comment from Boston.com on Friday.

A PBS representative told Boston.com: “PBS did not know of the exchanges between Professor Gates, Sony and Mr. Affleck and were not part of editorial decisions made by Professor Gates and his producers.’’

In a separate statement, PBS said that “it is clear from the exchange how seriously Professor Gates takes editorial integrity,’’ and that Gates and his producers used “independent editorial judgement to choose the most compelling narrative.’’

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