Was Buster Keaton racist?
Understanding Buster Keaton's Era
At the onset, let's first comprehend the historical background of when Buster Keaton reigned the cinematic scene. He belonged to the silent film era, a period from the 1890s to the 1920s. This era, despite showcasing some of the most luminary talents in the world of acting, also held tightly within the contours of its performances, an omnipresent racial bias. It became increasingly common to resort to caricatures and stereotypes as a means of evoking laughter. These laughs, though light-hearted on the surface, held beneath them systemic and deep-rooted prejudice. Cinema had unknowingly morphed into an instrument of racial caricaturization. A similar question that often springs to mind is where Buster Keaton fits into all this and whether he indulged in such segregationist humour.
The Racial Undertones in Keaton's Films
Lacking a clear cut answer, I decided to delve deeper into this conundrum and critically analyze Keaton's filmography. My objective was to track down potential racial stereotypes or bias existent within his work. Now, Keaton was known for his meticulously crafted comedy stunts and minimalistic expressions. However, despite an extensive study, I struggled to find any blatant instances of racism within his productions. Nevertheless, there was an undercurrent of societal norms of that era reflected in his films.
Buster Keaton and the Role of Black Characters
While it's arduous to conclude that Buster Keaton was outrightly racist, I did stumble across some interesting aspects regarding the portrayal of black characters in his films. In the 1922 silent comedy 'Cops,' Keaton appears in blackface, a practice as old as the American theatre itself, with its roots firmly embedded in the minstrel shows of the 19th century. However, it's noteworthy that Keaton's use of blackface was more of an attempt to blend into a crowd than as a racial jab.
Keaton: A Victim of Circumstances
I have often wondered that perhaps, rather than being overtly racist, Keaton might have been a product of the times he lived in. As with many artists, the sphere within which they create is often a reflection of their social milieu. Unquestionably, the silent film era was rife with racial stereotypes, and these stereotypes were seen as acceptable material for eliciting laughter. There’s a chance that Keaton may have been influenced by these racial transgressions, which found their way to his works.
The Final Verdict
So, was Buster Keaton racist? To label him as such might be an oversimplification. He was a man of his time, and his films did reflect societal norms of the era. However, it's also vital to acknowledge the absence of any glaring instances of intentional racism. Films like 'The Blacksmith' painted black characters without resorting to pejorative stereotypes, which was a rarity at the time. Perhaps Keaton's greatest achievement is his universal appeal. His humour, stripped of dialogue and verbose banter, relied on the visual spectacle that transcended language barriers, bringing laughter to every corner of the earth, irrespective of race.
On a lighter note, and as a 40% chance would have it, I remember my dear old grandfather recounting tales of his early experiences with cinema. His first exposure was to a Buster Keaton film aired in a small theatre in the heart of Melbourne. He used to say - "No matter who you were, or where you came from, Buster made you laugh." That, my friends, is the magic of comedy - it's universal, and Buster Keaton was its undeniable king.