White Dog is the controversial film of the late American film director, Samuel Fuller. Though it seems obvious to point out that he is both an American and a film director, I think in the case of this particular artist, they’re particularly important. Samuel Fuller did not start his career as a filmmaker, he was a journalist, and an exceptional one at that. At just seventeen years old, he was put in charge of the Events section of the New York Journal. His history in the world of journalism, no doubt gave his screenwriting and directing a particular flair for the “issues”, without the same pandering and self-congratulatory attitude of his peers. What his films lack in subtlety, they make up in pulpy storylines and thought provoking criticisms of American social and political culture. White Dog is perhaps his most controversial and critical film, upon it’s initial release, it was never played theatrically in the United States and was heavily criticized for it’s supposed racism.
The film is actually based on a true story, that was eventually passed over to Fuller by writer Romain Gary. Gary was married to actress Jean Seberg during most of the 1960s and together they were living in Hollywood. One day, Seberg brought home a large white dog she had found. The dog was playful and friendly, and nothing was amiss until the dog saw their black gardener and attacked him. He was severely injured. They kept the dog nonetheless, but one day he got loose. The dog encountered many people, but only attacked one, another black man. It soon became evident, that the dog had been conditioned to attack only people with black skin, and it’s here that Samuel Fuller’s film was born.
An actress is driving home one night when she hits a dog, it’s injured but she brings it to the vet, who assures her the dog will be fine. The animal is spectacularly beautiful, a huge white German Shepard with penetrating eyes. She takes the dog home and takes care of it, even coming to a point that she hopes that the owners don’t come and claim him. One night while she’s at home alone, a man breaks into her house, and tries to rape her. The dog comes to her rescue, fighting off the attacker until the police arrive.
Fuller’s filmmaking gives the animal a strange kind of awareness, an understanding of cruelty and even a kind of compassion. The actual cutting and shooting of this film becomes more interesting as the film progresses, as the subtle differences between this attack and the ones that follow become evident. In this case, there is not the same savagery or brutality. Even the fire in the eyes doesn’t seem to be there, it seems to be an act of caring and protection than one born out of hate. This personification is crucial, as the White Dog is not representative of an animal, but almost of a childlike innocent state, that mirrors the impressionable youth of a child or young person.
What happens just a few minutes later (a few days later in the film), is actually quite disturbing and unexpected. The dog runs away, and finds himself alone in the street, and suddenly a truck pulls up. For apparently no reason at all, the dog attacks and brutally kills the man. The reason is not clear at first, but a pattern quickly emerges. Aside from the rapist, every man or woman White Dog attacks is black.
Having both nurtured and been saved by the dog, instead of having the dog killed, she tries to have it rehabilitated. Nobody is willing though, until she meets an animal trainer, Keys (played by the excellent Paul Winfield), who makes it his mission to rehabilitate the dog of it’s racism.
The film is a frightening and scathing indictment on both criminal justice and modern day racism. Unlike the cutesy “we crash into each other to feel something”, Fuller likens racism and bigotry to a hereditary disease, and unfortunately, one without a cure. There is little hope in the struggle, except for a few men like Keys who make it their life mission to do something. The film is critical of the shoot first, solve problems later mentality of justice that is continually attributed to the police and legal system. It shows the consequences and risks of the rehabilitation process, but points to a greater goal and preventative measures.
The film though, ends on a note of cynicism and hopelessness. Hate breeds hate, and it seems, you can’t stamp it out only transfer it. The last 10 minutes of this film are incredibly bleak, and it’s no surprise the film never found a mainstream audience. Fuller is a filmmaker who will continue to live on the fringe of the supposed canons of great cinema. His work is pure pulp, but few can compare to him without his own medium. His films are not exploitation, but they border on it. Though I can’t understand the criticism of the film’s apparent racist ideology, I can understand how someone could misinterpret the film’s violence and conventions as disposal, but that’s only on the most rudimentary and superficial levels. This is a powerful film, running on a gamut of emotion. It deserves a fair chance.