Looking back at Sam Fuller’s much-misunderstood, long withdrawn study of racism and rehabilitation.
No film sums up the idiocy of self-righteous moral protesting more than White Dog. This is a film that was buried in its home country for over a decade because of the arrogance of special interest groups that declared the film ‘racist’ – without actually seeing it of course – and promised national protests against the film. Faced with such threats – and aware that this was not a film that was likely to set new box office records in any case – Paramount pulled the film’s planned release, and despite it having critically acclaimed distribution in France and the UK, it remained buried, reduced to censored and unheralded TV showings until it was finally given US cinema screenings in 1991.
Seen now, you have to wonder just how ultra-sensitive and confused someone would have to be to consider this a racist film. Rarely has a film been so astonishingly misrepresented. Because the whole point of White Dog is to attack racism – to show it as a mental illness, a disease, an affliction. Anti-racism groups should’ve been embracing this film, even if it does ultimately suggest that there are no easy cures for this illness.
Kristy McNichol (then still a big name who had transitioned from child actor to adult star) plays actress Julie Sawyer, who hits a white German Shepherd with her car in the opening moments of the film. After taking the animal to a vet (who is more concerned with sticking her with a huge bill than looking after the dog), she takes it home with her, putting up posters to try and find the owner. But when the dog saves her from a rapist who has broken into her home, a bond forms between the pair, and she decides to keep him. But this is no ordinary dog. Things are bad enough when he attacks a fellow actress during a film shoot, but when he runs away and returns covered in blood (having attacked a man in a truck), Julie’s boyfriend tells her she has an attack dog that needs to be destroyed. Reluctant to do this, she takes the dog to a trainer, Carruthers (Burl Ives), to see if he can be de-programmed. But when the animal attacks another worker, it becomes clear that this is no mere attack dog, but a ‘white dog’ – a dog trained by racists to specifically attack black people.
While Julie and Carruthers agree the dog needs to be destroyed, his black partner Keys (Paul Winfield) disagrees. Keys is on a mission to re-educate ‘white dogs’, believing that racism is something that is learned, and so can be unlearned – this is an obsession for him, and something he presumably believes can be adapted to humans too. Seeing the dog as a victim, he starts to work with it, making it lose its fear and hatred of black skin. The question is, can you ever really unlearn hate, or will it just transfer to other targets?
Sam Fuller’s last American film is typical of his work in many ways. Fuller specialised in social issue films that were shot in a no-nonsense manner, mixing melodrama, exploitation, action and blunt social commentary in a way that creates both entertaining and thought-provoking cinema, and White Dog is no exception. He’s dealing with big heavy issues here but does so without making the film itself overly preachy or hard going. Fuller never forgot that the best way of getting a point across was by engaging the audience, and this film – like most of his work – is first and foremost a solid piece of drama. Fuller doesn’t go for any sort of fancy style – in fact, his films generally have what you might call a TV movie look about them. But that’s no bad thing. This is efficient, first-rate filmmaking that both informs and entertains.
It’s amusing to see some critics call White Dog an allegory for racism. I get that critics like to believe that they have uncovered some hidden subtext, but in truth, there’s no allegory here – the film is completely upfront about what the theme is. This is a story that says racism is a mental condition that people learn (or perhaps inherit) from others – when Julie finally meets the dog’s original owner, she screams at the two little girls he has with him to ignore anything he tells them, though you suspect it’s in vain – these kids will grow up to have racism pumped into them as relentlessly as it was pumped into the dog. Fuller’s ultimate message – that you might be able to break the specific racism, but will never get rid of the hatred – is a bleak one, but I fear it might be accurate.
But while the anti-racism message is hammered home, it isn’t done at the expense of entertainment. White Dog is a message movie, but it’s also – first and foremost – a gripping thriller, an animal attack film as powerful as any other with some powerfully shocking moments of violence (the dog attacks are pretty well handled). It’s also a solid drama. The film notably changes the story of Romain Gary’s original novel (in which the dog is reprogrammed by a black Muslim militant to hate whites), making it less obviously nihilistic but without really softening the central idea. And the film certainly doesn’t have any level of a cop-out at the finale.
McNichol handles the role fairly well, and Ives is a lot edgier than the kindly old grandfather character he seemed to have been playing for decades. But it’s Winfield’s film – as the obsessed Keys, he balances his anger, his sympathy and his single-minded determination to follow what we suspect is a lost cause perfectly. Much of the ‘message’ falls on his shoulders, and it’s delivered with a sense of authenticity and realism that is admirable.
The narrative of White Dog feels almost like the story of what has happened to the film itself. It has thankfully long since been rehabilitated as a film, but as with any controversial title, the ignorance and the misinterpretation – the fear that this is a dangerous movie – remains, albeit with people who have yet to bother to actually watch the film but who instead look at old headlines and boycotts. For Fuller, a director who thrived on controversy (his work included extraordinary and uncompromising work like The Naked Kiss, Shock Corridor and The Klansman, after all), the attacks on this film felt painful – what could be worse, after all, than making a statement against racism and then being accused of the very thing you are condemning? The film’s rediscovery at least came in time for him to appreciate it before his death in 1997, and I’m sure he’d be happy to see that it is now hailed as a classic and finally understood – at least by those who are not looking to boost their own importance – for what it was always meant to be.
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