Samuel Fuller’s White Dog (1981) wasn’t officially released in the United States until the Criterion Collection’s edition of the film was put out in 2008. At the time of its production, in the early 80s, Paramount was reluctant to promote a film that exhibited such a cynical attitude about the persistence of racism in America, so instead opted to shelve the film after only a few screenings in the US and Europe. Fuller’s crushing disappointment with Paramount’s decision ultimately contributed to his departure from the US to France, effectively ending his American film career. (For more details on Paramount’s suppression of White Dog‘s release, click here). Though at the time Fuller’s talents as a socially conscious B-movie director didn’t grant him the clout necessary to push for a wider release, his subsequent admittance into the purview of the critical world–White Dog is one of seven Fuller-directed films rereleased by the status-granting Criterion Collection–has brought the film to a much larger contemporary audience.
White Dog stars former child-star Kristy McNichol as Julie, an aspiring actress who accidentally hits a white German Shepard while driving home one night. Feeling responsible for the pup’s well-being, she resolves to temporarily adopt him while searching for his owners. The unnamed canine quickly grows attached to Julie, and proves himself a worthy companion after saving her from a deranged home-intruder. Eventually, the audience’s identification with the dog (in part facilitated by camerawork that indicates his point-of-view) shifts once it is revealed that he is a “white dog”; that is, a dog trained by white racists to attack black skin on sight.
Julie is initially unwilling to believe that her new friend could harbor such a dark side. Convinced of his innocence, she brings him along to her work on the set of a Hollywood studio. On the set, however, the dog viciously attacks a black actress named Molly (Lynne Moody), putting her in the hospital. Forced to accept that the dog is seriously dangerous, Julie seeks out the help of a Hollywood animal trainer named Keys (Paul Winfield). For the rest of the film, Keys works tirelessly to retrain the dog, despite the repeated assertions from virtually everyone around him that it can’t be done. His attempts are revealed to be the latest in a long history with “white dogs”–each case having ended in his failure. Despite his poor track record, Keys remains motivated until the very end by his belief that racism is not natural or innate, but rather learned, and therefore possible to unlearn.
Shot on a small budget and in a short time frame, White Dog belongs to the tradition of the Hollywood B-movie (though it came at a time during which the practice by major studios of producing cheap but relatively profitable accompaniments to major features had declined sharply). Paramount hired Fuller to direct the film based on his long-standing reputation for making quality genre films with tight budgets. Like many of Fuller’s films, White Dog abounds with exploitation-film motifs, including the heavy use of dramatic music (scored by the great Ennio Morricone), intense close-ups and zooms, and sensationalistic depictions of violence. In particular, the final scene in the film is a sort of catch-all for Fuller’s exploitation tendencies, incorporating the formalist elements above with a slow-motion climax that takes the form of a tense stand-off between the dog, Keys, and Julie (possibly a reference to Fuller’s earlier Westerns).
Fuller, whose other films include exploitation classics like Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964), often imbued his films with social commentary that reflected his own left-leaning politics. White Dog is not his first film to examine racism, but it is his most biting (pun… intended) and condemning of racism in contemporary society. As a sort of “social problem” film, White Dog addresses the question of whether racism can be unlearned, both individually and on a larger collective scale. The characters in White Dog are caricatures, mostly one-dimensional, who undergo very little change or transformation through the plot’s unraveling. As such, the audience’s investment in the characters and their development/transformation is transferred to the dog and his retraining. Bound up in the dog’s retraining is the potential redemption of contemporary (white) America. The film argues that racism is not inherent, inevitable, or innocuous, but neither is it easily cast-off or eradicated. Once learned, the fear and hate that underlie racism can only be reconfigured. And for a society built on an ideology of white supremacy, only the privileged and naive can afford to believe that racism ends in the era of “multiculturalism”.
The somewhat unexpected longevity of Fuller’s legacy as a B-movie director is at least partly due to the immense influence he’s had on filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino, who incorporate exploitation/B-movie elements into major Hollywood blockbusters adored by both the critical and commercial establishments. Like White Dog, Tarantino’s latest hit, Django Unchained, is about the brutality of racism and the decimation of black bodies. Both films depict highly aestheticized and upsetting violence against (mostly) black men. And while both condemn the violence, they also indulge in it and invite audiences to do the same. So what might explain the differences in the critical and popular receptions of White Dog and Django Unchained?
Unlike White Dog, Django is set in a past unrecognizable from contemporary America–the Antebellum South. The film’s villains are notably not ordinary Americans of the time, but rather the plantation-owning elite, an antiquated breed of racist that serves to highlight, by contrast, how decidedly non-racist we are today. Like all of Tarantino’s films, Django can be summarized as a hybridized genre film that freely draws on an assortment of cinematic traditions in a spirit of playful pastiche. Primarily taking the form of a Western, Django also draws heavily on the blaxploitation tradition of the 70s, freely melding qualities of these disparate genres with little consideration of the specific cultural context that gave rise to them. With much of the same non-consideration, Tarantino treats the history of slavery in the U.S. as little more than a generic structure from which to appropriate certain elements that make for the most entertaining feature film. Inherent in this film and its entire conception is an underlying ideology of “color-blindness”. Tarantino’s response to the criticism about his flippant treatment of slavery in the film was essentially to argue that his role as an artist grants him the right to tell any story he wants, regardless of his own positionality. To deny him that right–why, it would be reverse racism! With no regard for the real, complex persistence of slavery’s legacy in contemporary society, any social message or critique that might be gleaned from Django Unchained is inevitably swallowed up by the its generic structure; reduced to a postmodernist twist on the generic form of the classic Western.
White Dog‘s examination of racism, and its hypothesis that fear and hate are its most essential components, is too simplistic to offer a truly satisfying critique of white supremacy. Nonetheless, the film succeeds in illustrating at least two points that Django cannot. First, unlike Django, the face of racism is not a gold-toothed plantation owner, but a friendly neighbor with two sweet granddaughters. Racism is given a familiar face, revealed to be much closer and intimately bound to our reality than we’d like to admit. Second, White Dog illustrates the way in which privilege functions to obscure the structures of power that produce that privilege in the first place. When Keys explains the history of white dogs and their use in the South, Julie is shocked by both the brutality of the history and her complete ignorance of it. Julie’s sheltered life of privilege initially makes her doubt the validity of the dog’s conditioning, so sure that such a thing could only exist in, say, the mid-19th century. Her ignorance of the lived reality of racism results in a skepticism of the sort that might explain how some today can speak of a “post-racial” society, or even fathom the notion of “reverse racism”. White Dog‘s refusal to conform to a narrative that places the end of racism as sometime in the distant past is a radical thing for a Hollywood production, even 30 years after its release. As directors like Tarantino continue to find inspiration in the exploitation-aesthetic of Fuller’s work, the question is whether this aesthetic will be used to debunk the dominant narratives that underlie Hollywood cinema, or simply reproduce them in flashy colors.