White Dog February 22, 2007Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1980s , trackback
I’m not entirely sure where to start with this film, frequently identified for being one of the most bootlegged videos even though it’s still largely unseen. I guess the most logical place would be with Paramount’s absurd decision to withhold its release in 1982 due to pressure from the NAACP and likely fear of a controversial backlash. The film’s basic storyline of a white German Shepherd trained to attack black people somehow became a hot potato 25 years ago despite the story’s basis in fact and repeated accounts of similar situations, recounted in the film as originating when slave owners would train their dogs to attack runaway slaves. The biggest headscratcher is how someone could view White Dog as even the least bit racist or perpetuating racist ideals.
The dog’s attacks and training are consistently portrayed as shameful and wrong. The whole movie is built around the premise of trying to get the dog to unlearn his violent reactions to black persons. There is absolutely no indication at any point in the film that racism is acceptable behavior. The dog itself can’t even be accurately classified as racist since it was merely trained to act out of fear and anger towards persons with dark skin. Furthermore, the inevitable ending provides a definitive answer for anyone who hasn’t caught on throughout the film’s entire running time of showing racism as evil and hateful. It’s simply unfathomable how such an anti-racism movie could be shelved by its studio because of worries over it being deemed racist. Yet, that’s exactly what happened and has continued to happen ever since, as evidenced by the lack of a full U.S. theatrical release and an absence of a North American VHS or DVD release.
The origins of the story began in a magazine article, later expanded into a novel, written by Romain Gary, whose then-wife Jean Seberg had found a dog much as Kristy McNichol’s character does in the film. Seberg, who had starred for Jean-Luc Godard in Breathless, soon realized the seemingly friendly animal had been trained to attack black people after several incidents where the dog specifically targeted them. In White Dog, McNichol’s character, also an actress, becomes protective of the dog after he saves her from a rapist and wants to have him unlearn his violent training. She takes the animal to Paul Winfield’s character, an animal trainer who’s dealt with these types of dogs before but hasn’t successfully cured one without incident.
Going in to the film, I was sort of expecting some kind of horror type of movie with an out of control dog attacking black people in a rampage as the authorities tried to put an end to the animal attacks. As it turns out, director Samuel Fuller gives the audience something else entirely. It would be easy to watch White Dog and take the face value approach of seeing the Cujo-like story I had initially expected. It certainly plays a little like one of those exploitation films cable channels used to air late at night. Indeed, there’s little doubt that Fuller’s film could have enjoyed a rich life on television stations alongside Stephen King adaptations and animal gone wild tales.
This duality between cheesy 80’s attack dog film and brave parable on racism creates somewhat of a baffling response at first glance. It’s deeply entertaining, but there’s a surreal quality to seeing Kristy McNichol, Paul Winfield and Burl Ives in a film that many read as an allegory about racism in general. Frequent dips into humor from Ives, whether he’s bemoaning R2-D2 or showing his appreciation for sour cream, only add to the bizarreness. There are campy moments galore that nearly make it difficult to take any message being espoused very seriously. It’s almost like learning valuable life lessons from a very special episode of any number of laughtrack laden sitcoms.
Yet, when the film truly works, such as Winfield’s speech as to how the dog was trained over time to fear and then attack black people, it becomes clear that Fuller’s intent to allegorize the evils of years of racial prejudice through his simple story manages to movingly succeed in the unlikeliest of places. These scenes are crucial to set off the light bulb in the viewer’s mind that we’re dealing with more than just a story about a dog trained by a racist. While most of the film triumphs as a nearly unclassifiable horror/human-dog love story hybrid, the few moments of introspection into generations of racist stereotypes and fears are exceptionally potent without ever seeming preachy. By using B-movie techniques of economic filmmaking and viewer-friendly plotting and editing that Fuller built his career on, the director was able to insert a profound message about the dangers of continued prejudice.
The question then becomes to what degree was this message intended. I’m not exactly sure how far Fuller and Curtis Hanson, who co-wrote the script and went on to direct fine films such as L.A. Confidential and Wonder Boys, meant for the audience to take the premise of the white dog as representative of white America. Could the film possibly be insinuating that white society, like the white dog, has been conditioned or indoctrinated to view black people negatively? I’m honestly not sure. The white dog is ultimately an innocent who’s been trained to hate and I can see a possible correlation with media portrayals of black men conditioning white audiences to fear and create prejudices against black persons. I don’t know if that was the intention, to go to that extreme, or if such a comparison ever crossed the mind of Fuller or Hanson, but it can certainly be made with a little imagination.
In fact, much of the praise that is sometimes reserved for White Dog may reflect what viewers want to get from the film more than what the film actually gives us. Certainly that’s not an entirely bad thing since too often we’re hit over the head repeatedly with a glaring “message” reiterated umpteen times just in case we missed it meandering along the first few attempts. But, on the surface of Fuller’s film, it’s mostly left for the viewer to put together the ultimate take-home message, as the narrative plays a much more important role than the racism angle. Winfield’s speech is the only true insight the filmmakers provide for emptyheaded viewers to catch their not entirely subtle message. Since audiences probably prefer to draw their own conclusions and opinions, assuming they’ve been nudged ever so slightly, this might account for part of the film’s esteemed reputation.
I also think that the positive cult status surrounding White Dog may in large part be a result of its unavailability, a cinematic forbidden fruit of sorts. The film could easily disappoint those expecting an eloquent, thoughtful exploration of race in America. Instead, the film is a little clumsy and awkward at times and leaves most of the serious discussion for the audience to mull over on its own. These flaws are characteristic of much of Fuller’s work, and White Dog certainly fits well in his unique catalog. However, I don’t think it’s the director’s best film, and would give the edge to some of his earler films like Pickup on South Street or The Naked Kiss. Regardless, White Dog, occasionally popping up in a sparkling new print in retrospectives, shouldn’t be missed by anyone interested in Fuller and his films.