“The effect was counterintuitive,” host Henry Louis Gates tells TheWrap
When the Season 3 of “Finding Your Roots” premieres Jan. 5, much about the show will be different — though viewers are unlikely to notice. The PBS series, which explores the genealogy of celebrity guests, will boast an updated editorial process and a new producing station, Washington, D.C.’s WETA, which takes over from New York’s WNET.
Those changes follow a PBS investigation into the show’s decision not to include information about Ben Affleck‘s slave-owning ancestors in a Season 2 episode featuring the actor. Leaked emails between executive producer and host Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Sony Pictures Entertainment chairman Michael Lynton revealed that Affleck had requested that those details be excluded. “Based on the internal review that we had done on that one particular episode, we decided to put some safeguards in place,” Beth Hoppe, chief programming executive for PBS, told TheWrap in October when the show was renewed.
Gates, a professor at Harvard University, spoke with TheWrap this week about those safeguards, the impact of the scandal on the series, and the police violence against African Americans that captured the nation’s attention in 2015.
TheWrap: What was the most surprising discovery that you made this season?
Gates: Ty Burrell [star of “Modern Family”] had heard a family story that his maternal great-grandmother was black, a woman named Susanna Weeks. So we researched it, and it turned out it’s true. Ty’s great grandfather’s name is George Weeks, and in the 1930 census George Weeks was listed as white. In the 1920 census, he was listed as mulatto. And in the 1900 census, he’s listed as black. So in a 30-year period, he crossed over. But what’s interesting is that George Weeks’ mother, Susanna Weeks, was a black woman. She was a freed person of color living with her mother in Tennessee. We don’t know how she was emancipated, but she was.
How do you cast the show?
Essentially we sit around and fantasize about people. If you show up in my study in my house in Harvard [Massachusetts], it has a big cork board where we just put the names of people. We have over 70 people in reserve who have agreed to be in the series. Then it’s a matter of scheduling. The producers come up with names, I come up with names. Then we reach out to people and try to schedule them. Then we do the research, then we film them, then we match two or three together around similar stories.
Why do you think viewers are so interested in watching strangers learn about their family history?
What’s your favorite subject? Your favorite subject is yourself. And ancestry is another way of getting to know yourself. You’re not limited to the experiences of your ancestors, but you’re certainly shaped by your ancestors.
The show made some unwanted headlines last year over the Ben Affleck episode. Do feel like the controversy that grew out of that was merited?
We all learn from our mistakes. I’m a professor, and I teach my students that everybody is going to make mistakes. My mistake was not explaining to the officials at PBS what was behind my decisions. But what we did was we used that experience to create an even better series. This is the best season that we’ve ever done. The research is rigorous. It’s exciting. More and more people reached out to me and asked to be in the series. So the effect was counterintuitive. So I think that experience and what we learned from that experience has made “Finding Your Roots” even better.
What editorial changes have been made?
So, taking a page from the New Yorker, we increased our level of fact checking. I every once in a while write for the New Yorker, and it has the most rigorous level of fact checking I’ve ever seen. So we added another layer. It strengthens our conclusions and gives us a more rigorous product than I think we ever had.
You were wrongfully arrested six years ago outside your house by a white cop. Given recent headlines, particularly with the Tamir Rice incident, how serious a problem do you feel racial profiling by police is in this country?
I wouldn’t dare compare what happened to me with the terrible, terrible things that we’ve been seeing, the murders of innocent people, overreactions by the police in what clearly seem to be racially-motivated situations. I think that sensitivity training for the police, having video cameras in police cars will be helpful. But it’s terrible. So many black men in prison, it’s a scandal. I’m hoping we have prison reform and I’m hoping that these tragedies will lead to greater sensitivity training and reform in the relationship between the police and the black community.
Has that relationship gotten worse, or has the media made it easier to see?
I think it’s easier to see. The fact that we all have have digital cameras and can be filmed is spreading the knowledge of abuses that are decades and decades old. There’s a long history of problematic relationships between black people and the police. The Black Panthers were formed in part to monitor police behavior in the inner city in Oakland. And that was in 1966. There’s a long history of problematic relationships between the black community, the police, and the court system. I really praise the Black Lives Matter movement for making us all sensitive to a major problem and also calling for accountability.