White Dog (1982) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

White Dog (1982)

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Julie, a struggling actress, decides to take over the care of a large white German Shepard she hits with her car.  After the dog protects her from an assault it seems she has found a perfect protector.  Her perfect protector has a fatal flaw - he's been groomed to have a taste for black skin.  Julie begins searching for a way to keep her protector alive and finds a man willing to try and deprogram the white dog.  Samuel Fuller directs White Dog, with the screenplay written by Samuel Fuller and Curtis Hanson, and stars Kristy McNichol, Burl Ives, and Paul Winfield.

I believe racism can be defeated, and toward the end of White Dog it is - if only for a moment.  What happens afterward, and closes the film, is where Samuel Fuller introduces the last of his many ink blot tests where the confrontational images onscreen forced me into thinking just who is in the right.  Personally, the dog had the correct target in mind just when everyone thinks he has been deprogrammed to no longer be an attack dog.  People who want to bury the sins of racism or consider the violence committed in the name of white supremacy the acts of "lone wolves" are complicit in the next act of violence. And the next. And the next.

Fuller gets to this point by painting a striking portrait of how white supremacy views itself in the midst of White Dog's melodrama.  The simple, strong, and quick-to-action German Shepard is given the action hero treatment.  He's smart enough to figure out how to escape an electrified cage in a sensational slow-motion shot looking up at the dog as he ignites sparks while leaping over his prison.  Then there are his protective actions, fueled by the war movie propaganda playing on Julie's (Kristy McNichol) television, and the dog gets another shot worthy of his heroics as he jumps through a window to attack a man assaulting Julie.

White supremacists often fancy themselves violent heroes fending off hypothetical assault. The dog's action scenes get at this mindset directly.

As I write this, a number of white supremacists are spreading rumors of a November 4th attack in the United States by millions of ANTIFA and Black Lives Matter members.  Look how many of them want the attack to happen so they might be able to live out their fantasy of shooting black Americans.  Nevermind the crimes of their white leaders being brought out into the open today (October 30th, when the first round of Robert Mueller indictments have resulted in arrests related to Russian collusion in the 2016 Presidential election.) This is touched on in White Dog with a damning line of dialogue, post-assault, when one of the officers arresting the white assailant says, "Same damn rapist I nailed last year."

Nevertheless, they'll cling to their fantasy that they might be the one to repel an assault and be the "hero."  Don't get me wrong, it's an unquestionable good that the dog saves Julie, but it's juxtaposed with the killing of two innocent black men who committed the "crime" of existing in the dog's eyesight.  This is taking the good with the bad to a whole other level where addressing one system of violence against women ends up elevating the very type of noxious "heroics" that continue violence against black humans.  How to address one without diminishing the other is answered by the dog, at the end, who finally goes after one of the right targets.

Fuller prepares us adequately for this moment.  In the lead up, Julie has a massively cathartic confrontation with the dog's former owner who trained the dog to attack black men.  The man, recalling the potential for violence against women with a closeup of his hand around his granddaughter's neck, recoils at Julie's verbal assault as she screams at him for the damage he's done.  This is how it should be.  Racism can't be excused because the man appears with his grandchildren, and it needs to be confronted directly with no punches pulled.  The kids have to learn something is terribly wrong with their grandfather one way or another.

Which leads to the complicated question of Carruthers (Burl Ives.)  He owns an animal training facility, considers technology the enemy, and advises Julie to kill the dog before the dog has the chance to kill again.  Carruthers is fine with enslavement so long as the animals know how to behave, taking a moment to reinforce his own brand of sexism by telling Julie about lions who know how to behave around a girl in a bikini, and Ives' face deepens with his lowered shoulders as he then dramatically advises Julie to have the dog killed.  Sexual objectification is just another day at the job for Carruthers and has no interest in addressing the racist programming the dog has gone through to be so violent.  Carruthers briefly convinces Julie that there is no hope in redeeming the dog and he's ultimately right to be afraid.  After all, who knows how many corpses he's produced to keep his circle of enslavement going, and so long as he can draw a line between "redeemable" and "hopeless" he'll stay in business.

Innocence in front and in the distance, with the former programmed to break the illusion and hate the latter.

The tragedy is what Keys (Paul Winfield) is forced to do.  White Americans collectively ask black people to prove the trauma they suffer repeatedly.  Even when confronted with video evidence, white Americans cling to excuses on the side that let them comfortably live with their chosen "hero."  Keys' eyeroll at Julie's question about why the dogs weren't trained to go after white prison convicts speaks to her ignorance on how a convict's skin color precludes any notion of equitable treatment.  So Julie and Carruthers continue the tradition of forcing the oppressed to educate their oppressors, and when the dog makes his choice of target at the end the intersections of class and race come crashing together.  Keys has to protect his financial interest at the cost of ignoring what harm his business partner has caused by refusing to deal with bigotry directly.

So the uncomfortable realizations keep to the corners of the screen.  Julie's trip to the dog pound to try and find her protector shows her keeping a distance to the reality facing these dogs while, off in the distance, a dog is placed in an incinerator.  That same distance keeps Julie from understanding the full scope of racism's violent consequences as, once more, just in the distance of the dog eating out of the trash is a black child who may be the dog's next victim.  Finally there's Carruthers, at the end, isolated in his own corner with Julie and Keys unaware they're about to perpetuate another cycle of abuse.  The dog had it right, the question is when the humans around him will catch up to what needs to be done.

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White Dog (1982)

Directed by Samuel Fuller.
Screenplay written by Samuel Fuller and Curtis Hanson.
Starring Kristy McNichol, Burl Ives, and Paul Winfield.

Posted by Andrew

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  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the film. Fuller doesn’t present a simple or easy message in this film and every rewatch, like your piece, ends up provoking new questions about the interpretation of different scenes.

    • I appreciate you taking the time to comment, and I completely agree. The me circa-2008 would be aghast at the idea that Carruthers is a deserving target. Who knows where I’ll be come 2026.

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