Ben Affleck: The deleted segment about his slave-owning ancestry he didn’t want you to see
Ben Affleck admitted to his part in ordering the censorship of “embarrassing” details about his ancestry from a family documentary.
His revelation followed the publication of newly hacked Sony emails by Wikileaks. The conversation between an executive looking after the publicity of Affleck's Batman vs Superman project and the host of Finding Your Roots Henry Louis Gates, a professor of African American history, made clear Affleck's request to have details of a late relative who had been a slave owner removed from the final show.
Now, the script from the deleted scene as it stood in June ahead of the September broadcast has been recovered.
It sees Affleck and Gates discuss his great-great-great grandfather, Almon Bruce French, a spiritualist and occultist:
AT THE SAME TIME THAT ALMON WAS TRYING TO OFFER THE BEREAVED SOLACE... ANOTHER OF BEN’S ANCESTORS WAS LIVING 800 MILES DUE SOUTH. WE LEARNED THAT HIS LIFE HAD ALSO BEEN FUNDAMENTALLY AFFECTED BY THE CIVIL WAR—BUT FOR VERY DIFFERENT REASONS.
THIS MAN WAS BEN’S THIRD GREAT GRANDFATHER, BENJAMIN COLE, AND HE WAS LIVING IN SAVANNAH, GEORGIA AT THE TIME.
COLE WAS ONE OF SAVANNAH’S MOST PROMINENT CITIZENS—A WEATLHY LAND OWNER AND THE SHERIFF OF THE ENTIRE COUNTY.
AFFLECK: That’s amazing. I got a…we have a house in Savannah.
GATES: Did it ever occur to you that you had deep roots there?
AFFLECK: No, it didn’t. It didn’t at all. I had no idea I had any southern roots at all, so this is remarkable.
COLE OWNED A LARGE FARM IN GEORGIA AT A TIME WHEN SLAVE LABOR HAD MADE THE STATE THE CENTER OF THE SOUTH’S COTTON KINGDOM.
WE WANTED TO SEE IF WE COULD LEARN HOW BEN’S ANCESTOR FELT ABOUT THIS PECULIAR INSTITUTION.
AND FOR THAT, WE STARTED WITH THE 1850 CENSUS.
GATES: This is the slave schedule of the 1850 Census. In 1850, they would list the owner of slaves in a separate Census.
AFFLECK: There’s Benjamin Cole, owned 25 slaves.
GATES: Your third great-grandfather owned 25 slaves. He was a slave owner.
THESE HOLDINGS PUT BENJAMIN COLE AMONG THE SOUTHERN ELITE.
ONLY ABOUT 10% OF ALL SLAVE HOLDERS OWNED 20 SLAVES OR MORE.
AFFLECK: God. It gives me kind of a sagging feeling to see, uh, a biological relationship to that. But, you know, there it is, part of our history.
GATES: But consider the irony, uh, in your family line. Your mom went back fighting for the rights of black people in Mississippi, 100 years later. That’s amazing.
AFFLECK: That’s pretty cool.
GATES: That’s pretty cool.
AFFLECK: Yeah, it is. One of the things that’s interesting about it is like we tend to separate ourselves from these things by going like, you know, oh, well, it’s just dry history, and it’s all over now, and this shows us that there’s still a living aspect to history, like a personal connection.
By the same token, I think it’s important to recognize that, um, in looking at these histories, how much work has been done by people in this country, of all kinds, to make it a better place.
GATES: People like your mother.
AFFLECK: Indeed, people like my mother and many others who have made a much better America than the one that they were handed.
Originally, Affleck’s slave-owning ancestry was deemed to interesting, it was drafted into the opening segment for the show:
IN THIS EPISODE, WE PIECE TOGETHER THE LOST FAMILY HISTORIES OF ACTOR BEN AFFLECK, CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST BEN JEALOUS, AND ACTOR KHANDI ALEXANDER.
THEIR ROOTS HIGHLIGHT A UNIQUELY AMERICAN PARADOX: EACH DESCENDS FROM A PATRIOT WHO FOUGHT FOR OUR NATION’S INDEPENDENCE—BUT EACH ALSO DESCENDS FROM AN ANCESTOR WHO OWNED SLAVES.
But the final broadcast version opened like this:
GATES VO: IN THIS EPISODE, WE PIECE TOGETHER THE LOST FAMILY HISTORIES OF ACTOR BEN AFFLECK, CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST BEN JEALOUS, AND ACTOR KHANDI ALEXANDER.
THEIR ROOTS LEAD TO ANCESTORS WHOSE LIVES WERE SHAPED BY THE TWO DEFINING WARS IN OUR NATIONS HISTORY. THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION AND THE CIVIL WAR.
Addressing the leaked emails in a post on Facebook yesterday, Affleck said: “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 [Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.] 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. This is the collaborative creative process. Skip agreed with me on the slave owner but made other choices I disagreed with. In the end, it's his show and I knew that going in. I'm proud to be his friend and proud to have participated.”
WNET, the channel that broadcasts the show has since launched an internal investigation into the editorial decision to exclude the information.