White Dog

Dir: Samuel Fuller, 1982. Starring: Paul Winfield, Kristy McNichol, Burl Ives. English. Drama. Criterion.
White Dog

One would think that as blunt a director as Sam Fuller would have little use for metaphor when making a film about racism, but the director best known for his hard-hitting pulpy exposés of social injustice uses symbolism in White Dog as fluently as he used shock value in his previous films, without omitting any of the controversy expected of him. When Fuller made White Dog he had already pushed buttons with Shock Corridor’s blunt portrayal of inhumane conditions in sanitariums in the 1950s and The Naked Kiss’s vitriolic condemnation of small town hypocrisy. So why did Paramount seek out Fuller to co-write and direct a film based on a true story of a dog trained to attack Blacks, and then shelve the finished product? Fuller was back in favor after The Big Red One (1980), his first film after he made Shark! with Burt Reynolds in 1969, won the Palm d’Or at Cannes. Paramount pitched Fuller the concept, based on a Romain Gary article for Life magazine that Gary had adapted from his book Chien Blanc, and Fuller signed on to co-write the script with Curtis Hanson and direct the film. Together they adapted the non-fiction work into the story of Julie Sawyer, an aspiring actress who accidentally hits a white German shepherd while driving in the dark canyon roads of the Hollywood Hills. She rescues the dog, but after he attacks a co-worker, Julie believes that she has a former attack dog for a pet and takes him to movie set animal trainer Carruthers to reverse his aggressive training. When he sees the dog maul a Black man, he tells Julie that she has a “white dog,” a dog trained by racists to attack only Blacks. Keyes, a Black trainer with an anthropological bent, attempts to deprogram Julie’s racist dog as an experiment in the reversal of racial inculcation. Paramount was intent to avoid any accusations of insensitivity and in an attempt to obviate any complaints asked the president of the Beverly Hills chapter of the NAACP to be on set during the shoot. After the film’s completion the organization voiced its disapproval of the film and Paramount decided to forgo its release.

This Criterion release is the first time White Dog has been available in the U.S. It never had a theatrical release here (although it did in France where it had decent ticket sales) and it has never been available on Beta, VHS, Laserdisc, DVD or shown on television. Those of us who were lucky enough to rent (or work, *hech-hem*) at Mondo Kim’s in the East Village could rent a fuzzy bootleg with overmodulated sound. It was painful to listen to Ennio Morricone’s score in such a distorted form, but Faustian bargains were made to glimpse Fuller’s recondite masterpiece. Criterion does film scholars and the film community an immeasurable service when they release rare and obscure films like White Dog, Salò, Taste of Cherry, Sans Soleil, etc., more than amply making up for the plastic and human resources the label wastes the few times it releases films of questionable cinematic value that were already in wide circulation (I’m not going to name names. But one starts with Chasing…) By releasing White Dog Criterion is sharing with viewers one the strongest denunciations of racism in American film history, a denunciation that was stolen from audiences by Paramount’s timidity and the NAACP’s short-sightedness.

Fuller handles the most sensitive ideas with a forthrightness that some aver to be campy, B-movie style, but that’s because most viewers (and critics) are unnerved by honest filmmaking the rare times they see it. Fuller gets strong performances from his actors, especially Paul Winfield’s heart-breaking portrayal of Keyes. Fuller’s directorial choices are aimed at extracting the maximum emotion from each scene; he and Brian de Palma are of the few directors who employ slow motion not to jolt you out of the moment with artificiality, but to suck you deeper by leaving more time to react to the complexities of a poignant moment.

Although it seems obvious, the idea that racism is a learned prejudice was apparently still controversial in 1982. Regardless of their initial interest, when they received the finished film Paramount became anxious about the film’s unvarnished treatment of the subject. The film’s use of Hollywood as its location for racial violence probably did nothing to assuage their fears. But the NAACP was the kiss of death. It’s an utter mystery how one of the most anti-racist films ever made could have been accused of bigotry, but the NAACP cited fears that the film would instruct people to train “white dogs” and increase violent attacks on Blacks. Employing this logic, almost any kind of censorship becomes justified:  Stanley Kubrick shouldn’t have made The Killing because it depicts a detailed racetrack heist, To Live and Die in L.A. accurately details how to counterfeit money, and Murder, She Wrote is a lesson in almost perfect murders in each of its 264 episodes. And distribution decisions haven’t changed much in 27 years. Just this week Warner Brothers decided not to release The Dark Knight in China, citing the country’s preconditions of alterations to address the film’s “cultural sensitivities.” Obviously the Chinese government takes issue with the humanist, individualistic emphasis on a single person’s power to change society; instead the proletariats of Gotham should have united against the Joker and Two-Face, and sent them and other super-villains to re-education centers in rural villages to be taught the values of diligence, simple living, and party loyalty.

Posted by:
Gillian Horvat
Dec 30, 2008 3:28pm
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