When director Samuel Fuller was wrapping up filming on “White Dog” in 1982, Paramount Pictures became concerned that the film could offend black audiences and sent two consultants to review the film. One of the consultants considered the film inflammatory and offensive and two weeks before the end of filming Fuller was given a list of changes to be made to the movie. In the end, Paramount chose not to give the film an American theatrical release. It wouldn’t receive an official release until 2008, when the Criterion Collection released a special edition DVD of the film. Insulted by the experience, Fuller, one of the most acclaimed genre directors of the 20th century, moved to France and never made another American film.
“White Dog” is a blunt and unflinching look at the roots of racism as well as a narrative debate about the “curablity” of racism. Watched today, though, it’s hard to conceive that anyone could misconstrue the point of the film as being anything but a parable about the evils of racism. Pulling the film from theaters was a cowardly knee-jerk reaction on the part of the studio that chose to ignore the artistic value of an intentionally controversial work out of fears and misunderstandings.
The film stars Kristy McNichol as an aspiring actress who accidentally hits a white German Shepherd with her car. Initially the dog seems to be a friendly and intelligent animal but as she nurses the dog back to health and tries to find its owner she comes to the realization that it has been trained as an attack dog. She takes it to a Hollywood animal handler in the hopes of breaking the dog of its training, but when it inexplicably attacks a black man as she is leaving, the handler realizes the truth about the dog. It’s a “white dog” which has been programmed to attack black people on sight. Another handler, a black man, agrees to attempt to help the dog unlearn this behavior despite the warnings by the first handler that there is no hope for the dog and that taking away its ingrained training might lead to a confused and unstable animal.
It is interesting to see a film dealing with racism in which the prejudice is perpetrated not by a person but by an animal which technically isn’t capable of being racist. The only racist human in the movie is the dog’s owner who subverts expectations by not being a violent neo-Nazi but rather a kindly old grandfather with two children and a Whitman’s Sampler in tow. In one short scene, Fuller shows that racism often comes from unexpected sources and that the racists of tomorrow start out as innocents who learn the behavior from previous generations. It’s a complicated take on racial prejudice that remains provocative nearly 30 years later.
“White Dog” isn’t strictly a horror film, but it does clearly bear the influence of the genre. The film juxtaposes the portrayal of the dog as a McNichol’s loyal, friendly pet with scenes showing it as a dangerous monster, its white fur dappled with blood and gore. No one attempts to blame the dog for its racist behavior but the bigger question is whether it can be cured of this behavior. The ending of the film is open to some discussion regarding this question but no matter how it is interpreted, the final scene is undeniably bleak. It serves to underline the destructive nature of racism and implies that the only true cure for racism is to ensure that it is never learned in the first place.
“White Dog” is a powerful film and even if it were made today chances are it would still generate its share of controversy. A generation later, the US has made some real racial progress and although it’s hard to imagine modern audiences misunderstanding the anti-racist message of the film, it is undeniable that there remain pockets where the prejudices of previous generations continue to be passed on, maybe weaker and less openly tolerated, but still capable of causing great violence. “White Dog” succeeds by not being strident and preachy in its approach to the subject, but rather by exposing the roots of racism as a mental virus that can infect an otherwise normal person and turn them into an irrational, rabid dog.