Review by Jason Woloski
Posted on 18 March 2005
Source 5 Minutes to Live DVD
Even though White Dog tells the story of a white-furred German Shepherd taught to attack black skin on sight, Sam Fuller did not intend his film to be a controversial one. To Fuller, White Dog “was a thought-provoking movie exposing the stupidity and irrationality of racism in our society. Nothing more, nothing less.” Paramount Pictures, the film’s backer, also seemed unsuspicious of any potential confusion or backlash over the film’s narrative, and so they left Fuller and his crew alone during much of the writing, shooting, and editing process. At only one point in the production did a potential for trouble emerge, when a member of the NAACP was invited to visit Fuller’s set. The visitor concluded that Fuller was indeed making a film designed to be explicitly racist towards blacks, and in turn demanded that Paramount prevent the film from ever being released. Feeling (but by the sounds of it, also imagining to a large degree) further pressure from various groups deeming the film racist, Paramount ultimately decided to shelve Fuller’s finished work. To this day, White Dog has yet to receive a proper theatrical release in North America. It cannot even be found on DVD in Canada or the Untied States, except in bootleg form.
Betraying the naivety of Fuller’s own comments on the film, the actual narrative of White Dog incorporates a variety of elements which indicate that both Fuller and co-screenwriter Curtis Hanson were well aware of the complexities of the subject matter being taken on. In fact, the real shame of Sam Fuller’s film never making it to a proper North American theatrical release is that with this work, Fuller seemed ready to make a good number of Caucasian movie-goers squirm in their seats. Set in 1982 Los Angeles, white North American audiences familiar with popular cultural handlings of race and racism in mini-series such as Roots and Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple (which would be released in 1985), would have been forced to move past the experience of being implicitly congratulated for not having lived in a racist era long since past (“how could people have acted like that in those backward times?”; “this would never happen today”), while also being left with difficult questions about whether or not the titular character of White Dog is meant to be “us” (Caucasians, myself included), if the film actually is a racist one, or if the film’s makers were simply trying to create a social allegory designed to reflect the state of American racism in late twentieth century America.
Beyond the narrative structure and content of White Dog, the audacity of Fuller’s filmmaking style can also be found in the adoption of a variety of tropes and techniques from the genre of popular horror film (in a sense, White Dog could be considered a confluence of popular works of horror being made at around the same time – Stephen King’s novel of Cujo as well as the 1983 film adaptation of the same name come to mind – and the type of congratulatory Hollywood race films already mentioned). In his film, Fuller employs the common horror film trope of creating entertainment through relief of an existing social tension (think 1950s Cold-War allegories such as Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Gordon M. Douglas’ Them!), while also acknowledging that in horror films animals have long embodied the unspoken and the unspeakable.
What could have finally made White Dog so potentially dangerous a film is that it took a real American pandemic (racism), that people were divided rather than unified upon, and turned it into an engaging horror scenario. If this is the case, then Fuller was indeed making a film primarily for Caucasians, in that he probably hoped it would be Caucasian viewers who could gain the most out of the film’s rather pointed social critique. I say this on the basis that it is racist tendencies from a predominantly Caucasian perspective that are turned into metaphor and captured on screen in the film’s main character, thus allowing the visceral thrill of seeing a savage ”White Dog” attack helpless black victims to become acceptable, if not explicitly acknowledged. Fuller skillfully detaches human culpability from the actual attacker (twice black males are attacked with no one in sight) by locating the figure of the German Shepherd somewhere between a metaphor that is meant to represent contemporary white mankind trained to hate thoughtlessly, and an actual character within the narrative of the film, an animal trained by a singular racist for the purpose of killing blacks on sight. Interestingly, the dog’s racist trainer is seen only once in the film. More interestingly, he stands out due to a suspicious lack of even a trace of racism in any of the other white characters in the film.
The most complex human character in the film is also the only black character in White Dog with a substantial role (that is to say, a role which involves more than screaming while being brutally attacked). As played by Paul Winfield, the animal trainer who works with the dog in an attempt to reverse its racist programming is a man who understands the complexities of racism in a way that the other, white characters of the film are not able to. While McNichol and another animal trainer (played by Burl Ives) believe that the animal should be put down after it is found to have killed on multiple occasions, Winfield only becomes more determined to “save” the dog from itself. Winfield seems to understand that as seemingly noble as McNichol and Ives’ intentions are in their reaction to the news of the dog’s killings, by wishing to simply kill the dog outright, they have only managed to arrive at a typically “white” solution for dealing with an inability to understand otherness: kill that which is not understood, even if the misunderstood being represents both hyperbolically and stereotypically a black victim’s view of a white racist. What I mean by the final part of the last statement is that contained within the animal at the centre of White Dog exists yet another confluence (besides the confluence of genre discussed earlier), one in which traditionally perceived “white” racist tendencies (thoughtlessness, violence-based hatefulness) co-exists alongside traditional understandings of a white racist’s view of blacks (that blacks are animalistic, savage others, out of control and incapable of being understood by others). The irony contained in the embodiment of White Dog’s white dog then, is that in attempting to create a perfect representation of a racist killing machine, the racist in the film has also managed to create within his vision that which he so desperately hates, a creature which becomes othered and unrecognizable to the very race it represents. In not recognizing even a trace of themselves in the film’s dog, and thus determining that a creature of such unrecognizable behavior and action must surely be destroyed, McNichol and Ives further complicate, and confirm, this idea of confluence in the film’s canine racist.
Fuller’s willingness to “play” with racism, in the sense that metaphor, symbolism, and social fable are built directly into the narrative of White Dog, does not occur until the film’s second act. In the first thirty minutes of the film, Fuller is certainly playing with the audience, but he is doing so by introducing the relationship between dog and owner (played by Kristy McNichol, this character adopts the dog after hitting it with her car) as one in which the German Shepherd can fill every need that the McNichol character could possibly have. The dog first fills the role of “the absent male” by keeping her company. Soon after, it serves as protector by saving her during a rape (it should be noted that the rapist is white). As if the dog’s role as surrogate male companion is even in doubt by this point, Fuller actually includes a hilarious scene of a showdown between McNichol’s casual beau (played by Jameson Parker), and the dog itself, in which Parker seems genuinely distraught by how unmanly he is compared to the competition. It becomes clear rather quickly that the only lack that still needs fulfilling in McNichol’s character’s life is a sexual one. The dog’s walking around McNichol’s home and yard, prominently displaying its testicles and the hairy sheath of its penis, combined with the animal’s stare down with Parker reveals traces of yet another horror film influence, Merian C. Cooper’s 1933 classic King Kong. In Cooper’s film, the animal’s love becomes combined with the story of hyperbolized, racial threat (the story of the giant ape who falls in love with a white woman after being taken slave from his island home has often been referred to as analogous to the fear of sexualized black males as threats to white males in the United States). In Fuller’s film, however, sexual tension between animal and owner becomes curtailed by, rather than combined with, the introduction of a racially infused storyline.
Having briefly outlined the possible ways in which Caucasian discomfort could be stimulated while watching this film, I can’t help but think that with White Dog, black experience of racist violence has once again been appropriated into a predominantly white narrative, told from a white point of view. As aware I believe Sam Fuller was of the racist nuances involved in making a film such as White Dog, the film’s relation to race and racism remains troubling in that nowhere has a black perspective or narrative voice been truly incorporated into the mix. Paul Winfield’s character is certainly a complex one who in turn complicates the film, but his character finally serves an overall anticipation of white viewership, in that at no point does his words or actions challenge the established trajectory the film is already taking. In some ways, his desire to keep the dog alive reinforces established ideas of racism, even though his reasoning for doing so differs dramatically from the actual racist in the film. Having said all of this, I would be interested to learn how non-North American, non-Caucasian viewers might react to White Dog. Could non-Caucasians find a sense of release, entertainment, or projection in images of a savage German Shepherd attacking blacks on screen? I don’t know.