The Time Ben Affleck Tried to Erase His Slave-Owning Ancestor
White fragility at its finest.
In the weeks since the Minneapolis police killed George Floyd—an unarmed, restrained Black man—in broad daylight, as he begged for his life, there has been a sort of cultural atonement for the myriad ways white power structures have routinely exploited people of color. Some white folks have resigned; other have joined book clubs; and Hollywood, never to be outdone in the performative allyship department, recorded a funereal PSA.
A farrago of pained expressions, darting eyes, and black shirts, the ad featured a chorus of actors, some recognizable and some not, taking “responsibility” for turning a blind eye to racism, thereby facilitating the virus’ spread. And while the execution could not have been more ham-fisted, or self-serving, the foundation was sound: For too long, white Americans have refused to acknowledge the depths of racism, and the role it has played in them attaining their privileged status. Instead, Black people’s cries and pleas have been met with discomfort and defensiveness.
Which brings us to Ben Affleck.
Lately, as protests for Black lives rage in the streets and statues honoring racist Confederates come toppling down, I’ve been thinking about an incident involving Affleck, who, like his pal Matt Damon, is often treated as a liberal Hollywood barometer. Back in 2015, Affleck found himself in hot water when hacked Sony emails revealed that he’d requested a slave-owning ancestor be scrubbed from his episode of PBS’ Finding Your Roots.
“Here’s my dilemma: 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,” Roots host Henry Louis Gates Jr., one of the world’s leading experts on Black history, said in an email to then-Sony chief Michael Lynton dated July 22, 2014. “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?”
“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,” Lynton replied.
“All my producers would know; his PR agency the same as mine, and everyone there has been involved trying to resolve this; my agent at CAA knows. And PBS would know. To do this would be a violation of PBS rules, actually, even for Batman,” explained Gates Jr.
Ultimately, Affleck got his wish and his slave-owning ancestor was edited out of his Finding Your Roots episode, censoring his history to appease his mild unease. When the emails came to light, the Daredevil actor issued an apology on Facebook, writing, “After an exhaustive search of my ancestry for ‘Finding Your Roots,’ it was discovered that one of my distant relatives was an owner of slaves. 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. Skip [Gates] decided what went into the show. I lobbied him the same way I lobby directors about what takes of mine I think they should use”—here, Affleck actually compared erasing his racist ancestor and the people he enslaved from the historical record to bad acting takes in a film.
“I regret my initial thoughts that the issue of slavery not be included in the story. 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.” (Translation: You should all be thankful for my indiscretion, which has helped move the culture forward.)
It was later revealed that Affleck’s shameful relative was Benjamin Cole. A native of Savannah, Georgia, he was the owner of 25 slaves, and as sheriff, was personally responsible for executing a number of Black people accused of various “crimes.” While Affleck chose to prioritize his own fragile ego over publicly reckoning with the suffering of Black people, he’s had no problem realizing the full weight of atrocities committed against the Jewish people.
Just two months before the Finding Your Roots emails were uncovered, Affleck gave a speech to the Writers Guild of America in which he explained the meaning of his middle name, Geza:
“My parents named me after a Hungarian friend of theirs named Geza. When I got to be in the fourth or fifth grade, I threw a huge fit and I was like, ‘You are the worst namer of people in the world!’…Everybody calls me, ‘Ben-Gay’… This was way before being gay was as cool as it is now.
“My mom told me that Geza was a friend of hers who died around the time I was born. He was a Holocaust survivor from Hungary and he was the most exceptional person she knew. He had leapt from a train during the Holocaust taking Jews to the death camps, and he went back to save several other people to try to break them out.
“She told me 6 million Jews were murdered and that men like him, brave and selfless, were what stood between us and the evil that people were capable of doing to one another. That name has never been anything short of a tremendous honor to me since that day. I came to understand and better identify with the suffering of others.”
In recent weeks, Hollywood has taken a number of very small steps to improve its appalling lack of diversity. They’ve appointed Ava DuVernay to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s Board of Governors; set a series of diversity standards to determine awards eligibility; and finally named a Black Bachelor. But, for an industry that awarded Green Book Best Picture a little over a year ago, and recently sought to produce a show called Confederate, wherein the white Game of Thrones creators envisioned an alternate reality “in which slavery remains legal and has evolved into a modern institution,” the rot truly runs bone-deep.