When Ben Affleck Tried to Erase His Slave-Owning Ancestor
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In the weeks since the Minneapolis police killed George Floyd - an unarmed, reserved black man - in broad daylight when he was begging for his life, there was a kind of cultural atonement for the myriad ways that white power structures routinely exploit people with color. Some whites have resigned; others have joined book clubs; and Hollywood, never to be surpassed in the performative allies department, recorded a Funereal PSA.
The ad was a farrago of pained expressions, flying eyes, and black shirts. It contained a chorus of actors, some of whom were recognizable and some not. They took on the "responsibility" to close their eyes to racism and thus to promote the spread of the virus. And although the execution couldn't have been more ham-proof or self-serving, the foundation was solid: For too long, white Americans have refused to recognize the depths of racism and the role it played in attaining their privileged status. Instead, the screams and requests of the blacks were received with discomfort and willingness to defend themselves.
That brings us to Ben Affleck.
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Lately I've been thinking about an incident involving Affleck, often treated like his sidekick Matt Damon as a liberal Hollywood barometer, as rioting for black lives on the streets and statues collapsing in honor of racist Confederates. In 2015, Affleck was in hot water when hacked Sony emails revealed he had asked to remove a slave-owned ancestor from his episode of PBS 'Finding Your Roots.
"Here is my dilemma: For the first time, one of our guests asked us privately to elaborate on one of his ancestors - the fact that he owned slaves," says Roots, Henry Louis Gates Jr., one of the world's leading experts on the story of the blacks was told in an email to Sony CEO Michael Lynton on July 22, 2014. “Now four or five of our guests are descended from slave owners this season, including Ken Burns. We have never tried to censor or edit what we found. He is a mega star. What do we do?"
“I would take it out if nobody knew, but if it turns out that you are processing the material based on this type of sensitivity, it will be difficult. If all things were the same, I would definitely take it out, ”Lynton replied.
“All of my producers would know; his PR agency the same as mine, and everyone there was involved in solving this; My agent at CAA knows. And PBS would know. Doing so would be a violation of PBS rules even for Batman, ”said Gates Jr.
Ultimately, Affleck got his wish and his slave-owned ancestor was cut out of his Finding Your Roots episode, with his story being censored to appease his slight discomfort. When the emails came to light, the Daredevil actor apologized on Facebook and wrote: "After a thorough search by my ancestors for" Finding Your Roots ", it was found that one of my distant relatives was a slave owner. I didn't want to see a man with slaves on a TV show about my family. It was embarrassing for me. The very thought left a bad taste in my mouth. Skip [Gates] decided what went on the show. I lobbied him the same way I hire directors for my hires. “- Here Affleck actually compared the erasure of his racist ancestor and the people he enslaved from historical records to bad actors in a film.
“I regret my initial thoughts that the subject of slavery will not go down in history. We deserve neither recognition nor guilt for our ancestors, and the level of interest in this story suggests that we as a nation are still grappling with the terrible legacy of slavery. It is an exam that is worth continuing. I am glad that my story, albeit indirectly, will contribute to this discussion. I don't like the fact that the guy is an ancestor, but I'm glad that one aspect of the history of our country is being discussed. "(Translation: You should all be grateful for my indiscretion, which has helped advance the culture.)
It was later revealed that Affleck's shameful relative was Benjamin Cole. Savannah, Georgia, was the owner of 25 slaves and, as the sheriff, personally responsible for the execution of a number of blacks accused of various “crimes”. While Affleck chose to prioritize his own fragile ego over public accounts of black suffering, he had no problem realizing the full weight of the atrocities against the Jewish people.
Just two months before Finding Your Roots' emails were exposed, Affleck made a speech to the Writers Guild of America, explaining the meaning of his second name Geza:
“My parents named me after a Hungarian friend named Geza. When I was in fourth or fifth grade, I had a big fit and said, "You are the worst name in the world!" ... Everyone calls me "Ben-Gay" ... It was so long before being gay was as cool as now.
"My mother 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 extraordinary person she knew. He jumped off a train during the Holocaust and brought Jews to extermination camps. He went back to save several other people and try to break them out.
“She told me that 6 million Jews were murdered and that men like him, courageous and selfless, stood between us and the evil people could do to each other. This name has never been a great honor for me since that day. I understood and identified better with the suffering of others. "
In recent weeks, Hollywood has taken a number of very small steps to improve its terrible lack of diversity. You appointed Ava DuVernay to the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science. Establishing a set of diversity standards to determine eligibility; and finally named a black bachelor. But for an industry that featured the best Green Book image a little over a year ago and recently tried to produce a show called Confederate, in which the creators of the white Game of Thrones imagined an alternative reality, “legal in slavery remains and has developed into a modern institution ”, the rot is really bone-deep.
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