Samuel Fuller had long grappled with the problems of racism over the course of a long career in film. In 1981, the issue of racism would be at the forefront of one of his films for the first time in White Dog. Earlier in his career, Fuller had tackled racism as a kind of sociological absurdity, depicting racism inversely in his film Shock Corridor (a black man tortured by the Klu Klux Klan suffers a nervous breakdown and begins to despise black skinned people himself). The mental institution, which is the primary setting of Shock Corridor (1963), allowed the audience some distance from the political and social issues explored in those sequences, the characters inhabiting that space were insane after all. But White Dog does away with the sense of removal and safety, by using a dog as a racist, Fuller establishes an intimate rapport with his audience via association, and is able to drive the morality of the film to the forefront of the audiences’ experience.
Kristy McNichol plays Judy, a struggling actress who hits a white dog with her car. Unable to find the owner, Judy adopts the animal, which in turn saves her from being raped by a home intruder. Shortly thereafter, the dog attacks a friend of Judy’s. Assuming the dog is trained to attack, Judy seeks out the aid of professional animal trainers Carruthers (Burl Ives) and Keys (Paul Winfield). Learning that the dog is a “white dog” (trained by a racist to kill African-Americans), Keys becomes obsessed with “curing” the animal.
It is Keys’ belief that if he can find a way to rehabilitate the dog, that racists will stop instilling prejudiced behavior in their animals. Like Keys, Fuller believes that racism is a product of upbringing, that the circumstances surrounding the rearing of a child, or in this case a puppy are directly responsible for that individuals’ behavior. What Fuller already knows and Keys learns at the film’s climax is that racism cannot be unlearned. When the “white dog” attacks Carruthers it becomes clear that a new kind of racism has replaced the former, that instead of attacking blacks, the dog attacks whites. This is the main message of White Dog, a moral lesson if you will, concerning the functions of racism as a social disease.
The journey to cure the “white dog” is problematic for Keys and thematically consistent for Fuller. Like the Richard Widmark character in Pick-Up On South Street (1953), Keys is not above going beyond the law to fulfill what he believes is his moral obligation to society. At one point the dog escapes, venturing off into a near by neighborhood where it kills a black man in a church. By law, if an animal commits such an offense it is to be put down. But Keys decides to capture the dog and continue his rehabilitation experiment. Keys moral obligation stems from a sense of responsibility to the African American community; if he can cure the dog, the community may no longer have to fear dogs being raised in that way.
Judy also bypasses the law in favor of her own form of justice. En route to see Keys presumably positive results, Judy is confronted with the dog’s previous owners (who trained the animal to be a “white dog”). The owner insists on the animal’s return, getting instead Judy’s anger and refusal. Though it was her duty to give up the dog to it’s rightful owners, she chose instead to spare the dog any more racial conditioning.
Keys says in the film that a dog “only sees black and white”. Keys’ observation is a summation of the political perceptions adopted by both him and Judy. As White Dog progresses, the political views of the characters become more black and white, a series of simple choices between right and wrong. It’s a recurring motif in the films of Samuel Fuller that the journey of a character hardens their view, distilling all the complications of civil rights and legislature, leaving the less ambiguous question. The Big Red One (1980) follows an entire outfit of soldiers as their view of morality and justice is systematically simplified over the course of the narrative. Fuller is aware that humanity sees these moral dilemmas in much simpler terms than the government, and that distilling these concepts is a means by which to help the audience understand the conflicts in his films. Yet, it seems Fuller is also aware that such a simplified perception makes it much easier for both his characters and people in general to make tough decisions, to play the parts of hero and villain. In the world of film, it’s a signature tactic of Fuller’s, in the world of literature, these tactics pre-date the works of Homer.
Though the views and behavior of the human characters are manifest in the black and white vernacular of pulp, the “white dog” is a consistently complex symbol (beyond being a “white dog” with white fur). From the outset of the film the dog is the most sympathetic character; he’s man’s best friend. As the dog shows more and more signs of his penchant for racially motivated violence, it remains inherently impossible to hate the dog. Fuller reenforces the audiences’ affiliation with the dog by giving the dog as much to do and as much screen time to do it as he does the film’s cast. Within the film, the dog becomes as much a fully realized character as his human counterparts, a rare feat outside of a children’s film. Where most films suffer when a character’s racism prevents the audience from sympathizing with him/her. Fuller avoids this problem altogether, instead employing this sympathy to better conveys the nature of racism as a byproduct of upbringing. No one wants to believe a dog is born racist any more than they don’t want to see the dog cured. And when the dog can’t be cured, one feels as much for the dog as they do for Burl Ives, whom he attacked.
White Dog also brings up an issue by treating racism as a disease. Throughout the film, Keys claims, “I’ll cure that dog”. The implications of this line are that racism can be cured and that racism is a disease. Yet, Fuller makes a clear case for racism as a byproduct of one’s upbringing. The relationship between cause and symptoms, if we assume for a minute racism is a disease transmitted through behavior, it seems equitable with a disease such as anorexia. If that is so, racism is a behavioral disease stemming from societal pressures manifest by the parents taking on similar forms of the disease’s symptoms. This could arguably be substantiated by Fuller’s film, though not to the extent to which he argues racism is a product of one’s upbringing. For that reason, I would dismiss the allegation that White Dog argues for the anorexia analogy in favor of the behavioral upbringing scenario. Regardless of Fuller’s definite intention, the film signifies both as clear possibilities and to not consider both would negligence.
Considering the sociological ramifications of this film mentioned above, it becomes clear why Paramount Studios denied White Dog national distribution in 1982. The United States was in many ways still reeling from the political strife of the seventies, and a film of this sort, though possibly a critical success, would never be commercially viable. White Dog did manage international distribution upon its completion, and has since been made available domestically on home video.
Looking at White Dog in the context of Samuel Fuller’s entire career, it stands out as his last major work of any political significance. Always a maverick, and never boring, White Dog works as a suitable resolution to a style of political filmmaking that, until this film, had been working towards its peak.