The national spotlight must often turn towards a tragedy to provoke a subject many would rather turn away from, but impassioned and hopefully educated debates can also be provoked via various forms of art, i.e. the dialogue on display in last year's Django Unchained. The cinema both reflects and creates unified conversation. On the day of the Zimmerman verdict, Spike Lee's influential Do The Right Thing played at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens, while a few train stops away, Ryan Coogler's Sundance hit Fruitvale Station (still unseen by this writer) played to packed theaters in Manhattan. The topic of race – and the topic of whether or not it should even be considered a topic – was once again alive and well throughout the country, and thus what better time would there be to direct your attention to another notable cinematic summer entry, albeit one from thirty-one years ago, Samuel Fuller's controversial and often quite moving White Dog.
Premiering in France on July 7th ,1982 and disappearing soon thereafter, White Dog didn't inspire much American criticism until the summer of 1991, when the rep cinema Film Forum revived the work and amplified its presence (J. Hoberman placed it number one on his Top 10 list that year); a 2008 home video release from Criterion has since made the film widely available. The story of a white German Shepherd conditioned to display racially-charged homicidal tendencies when encountering African-Americans, White Dog is a film which would appear to wear its somewhat obvious message on its sleeve. Whether it be man, woman, or beast, racism is a trait less hereditary than forced upon. Replace the German Shepherd with two adolescent Caucasian girls, which the film does near its end, and one could envision a similar result. However, in examining the often damaging ways of thought which carelessly separate groups of different physical appearance, White Dog's title character, anthropomorphized to dramatic effect, exposes the emptiness of mechanized racism, bred without conscience and manufactured to please the leader. Call it assembly line racism made in the image of its creator.
After hitting the dog with her car at the beginning of the film, Julie (played by Kristy McNichol), a California actress struggling to make it big, feels guilty and eventually takes it in as her own. At first, the dog's violent tendencies do not skew towards race as much as toward protection of its new caregiver. When a local rapist breaks into Julie's house, the white dog “stands its ground” and comes to the rescue. Rather than murder this white rapist, the German Shepherd keeps him at bay until the police arrive, typical Neighborhood Watch dog be damned. Later, when the canine runs away from Julie and encounters black men on the street (or rather one particular city worker driving a street cleaner), the white dog's true menace comes to fruition.
With its subject matter and opening credits based quite literally in the colors white and black, White Dog is a horror film interested in duality. At one point, the animal is even referred to as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. What makes the narrative deeply tragic then is the historical circumstance it was birthed from. As runaway slaves were ruthlessly chased down in the South by the dogs of their white owners – a scene the aforementionedDjango Unchained touches upon – and black men and women were threatened by police dogs in the fight for American civil rights, Fuller and Curtis Hanson's screenplay puts to use truths of the past to provide a contemporary “what if?” scenario gone wild.
To further this point, take one of the initial scenes set in Noah's Ark, a company training ground specialized in preparing animals for motion pictures. As Keys (Paul Winfield), the black trainer determined to cure the German Shepherd, explains to Julie, a society in fear of black skin has lead to its hatred of it. “Dogs live in a black and white world,” Keys explains, “Unlike ours, they live it visually and not racially.” And later, when asked how these attack dogs come to be, he explains that their original owners would find “a black wino who desperately needs a drink or black junkie who'd do anything for a fix, and then pay them to beat that dog of yours when he was a puppy.....the younger the better. And as the dog grew up, those methodical beatings by blacks planted that seed of fear in him. And that fear became hate, and that hate conditioned him to attack the color black before....” “Before black can attack him,” Julie finishes.
Following the sequence in which the white dog breaks out of Noah's Ark in true action movie fashion, the stray pooch paroles the streets in search of grub. Unbeknownst to him, a black child of about five years innocently walks out onto the sidewalk, prey for the wandering canine's racially-incensed hunger. In a cleverly staged moment, just as the oblivious dog is about to notice his youthful victim, a woman pulls the child back inside, unknowingly averting disaster. Is this the film's 2013 post-Trayvon moment? While all mothers try to protect their offspring from oncoming danger, one gets the sense that African-American caregivers in particular will be holding their loved ones a little closer now given the Zimmerman verdict. Nonetheless, the white dog soon spots a new victim, a business-suited black man (the actor's eyes implying knowledge of the country's well-documented dog-on-black-man attacks) and kills him in a white-painted church housing a stained-glass window featuring a noble white dog.
By the film's finale, there's hope for the beast's “post-racial” conditioning. When Keys commands his subject to charge at him, his black skin often shot throughout the film in close-up to resemble the red fabric used to incite a bull's rage, the dog remarkably chooses not to attack. Success! Fuller then uses the rather ironic idea of race as a dividing duality once more. After a moment of solidarity with Keys and Julie, the white dog instead chooses to attack Noah's Ark's white owner. Keys has no choice but to accept the harsh reality and shoot the dog dead. This society beyond race, animalistically speaking, has failed. We may be able to change the race we trust, Fuller seems to be informing us, but perhaps we may only trust one at a time.
As the after-effects of the Zimmerman verdict continue to be felt in the coming weeks, with jurors inking tell-all book deals desperate to cash in, White Dog is a film well worth checking out. Regardless of whether you believe the evening of February 26th, 2012 was fueled by race (race being a socially constructed concept and distinctly different from ethnicity), the media coverage and subsequent emotions shared online and elsewhere certainly have been. Public outcry and celebration have left contrasting sides scratching their head. Not a threat sporting a black hoodie but rather clean white fur fit to pet, the white dog in Samuel Fuller's film is also prime for debate. Those who root for him are scary people, while those who empathize with his cruel upbringing may be excusing his current murderous rampage. In the summer of 2013, these stances must be laid out on the table and thoroughly discussed.