White Dog (1982)

“That’s a WHITE DOG!”

Mr. Carruthers
White Dog Criterion Cover

Julie Sawyer (Kristy McNichol), a young aspiring actress in California, accidentally runs over a white German Shepard on a dark night on a back road in the hills. Guilt ridden, she takes the dog to the vet for treatment and seeks to put him in the pound incase the owner is looking for him, but when the vet informs her that dogs who are not claimed after 3 days are euthanized, Julie decides to take the dog home and nurse him back to health while she searches for his owners. One night she is nearly raped by an intruder and the dog wards him off. Julie, shaken after the ordeal, decides to keep the dog for protection.

Julie is distraught after the dog runs off chasing a bunny and doesn’t come back. Thinking he may have been captured by the pound, she goes over to find him but grows more concerned when what she witnesses is the inhumane way the dogs are being put to sleep. Unbeknownst to her, the dog goes out and attacks a unsuspecting street cleaner who is African American. it returns covered in dirt and blood which Julie ignores; she’s just so happy the dog is back, she doesn’t give it a second thought. But when the dog attacks a fellow actress on a film set who is also Black, she believes the dog to be a vicious attack dog and seeks to get it tamed.

She finds Carruthers (Burl Ives), a trainer of wild and dangerous animals for film, but when he takes one look at the dog, he advises Julie to euthanize it. When he shows her out, the dog attacks a black employee and it is at this point where Julie is faced with the truth: this isn’t an attack dog, this is a WHITE dog, a dog bred to attack, maim, and kill black people. After witnessing the ordeal, Keys (Paul Winfield), another trainer, decides to take on the task of reprogramming the White Dog, hoping to answer one question: if hate and racism can be taught, can it be untaught or is it an incurable condition?

White Dog is directed by Samuel Fuller, written by Samuel Fuller and Curtis Hanson, and is based on the book by the same name written by Romain Gary. White Dog was not released in the United States out of fear of backlash from everyone from the NAACP to the KKK. It was released in France in 1982 to great praise but didn’t get released in America until 2008 when it was released by the Criterion Collection. The film itself saw some issues prior to production. It is well documented that Roman Polanski was set to direct this film but was dropped when he fled the country after being charged with the rape of a minor. The screenplay was worked over many times before finally landing in director Samuel Fuller’s hands. The movie took only 45 days to make but when it was shelved due to concerns of racial violence, a disheartened Samuel Fuller moved to France and decided to never shoot another American movie.

The film is praised by all critics for its direct assault on the idea of racism and its B-movie quality. Janet Maslin, A reviewer for the New York Times, lauded Fuller for his “command of stark, spooky imagery,” and for the way the cinematography and soundtrack gave the film “the blunt unnerving power of a horror story.” Dave Kehr of the Chicago Tribune praised Fuller for his use of metaphors to present racism as “a mental disease, for which there may or may not be a cure.” The film toes the line between horror and suspense with a strong message that films like Stephen Kings “Cujo” completely missed. It opens up the discussion about race and racism. Julie represents the innocent mind that can’t understand this evil thing that is racism until she sees it first hand, the way many white Americans are clueless to the different lives they live from their African American brethren. Keys could’ve easily been that “negro” who is good with animals, but Samuel makes him and his parents educated and learned. He truly believed that if racism can be taught, it can be unlearned as well. There is a pivotal scene where, during the training, the dog escapes and kills a black man in a church. The scene horrifies Keys and Julie but when Julie emphatically asks Keys to kill the dog he responds by telling her he’d love to put it down but killing the problem doesn’t solve the problem.

Even though the film was initially released in 1982, it is still relevant today and hits with a heavy hand. The debate is still on going: if racism is a decease, can it be cured? If it is mental, can it be treated? What is the best way to reprogram the mind to accept that which it has been trained to hate? The film doesn’t answer the question, but it certainly gets the discussion going. It is a must see and is #455 on the Criterion Collection.

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