Director: Samuel Fuller
Screenplay: Samuel Fuller, Curtis Hanson
Based on an Article & Book by: Romain Gary
Starring: Kristy McNichol, Paul Winfield, Burl Ives
Producer: Jon Davison
Running Time: 90 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
White Dog is a film with a chequered past. Telling the story of a dog that has been trained to attack black people, the film picked up controversy before it was even released. The NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) caught wind of the production early on and requested a visit to the set. Rumours that the film was racist and could incite racial hatred and copycat dog training spread fast and the film was pretty much shelved on completion in the US. It had a small release in Europe and picked up some decent reviews, but in its home country it was hidden away for years. After watching the film myself I’m rather baffled as to why it was deemed racist though. That couldn’t be further from the truth and it seems clear that the detractors hadn’t actually watched it.
White Dog begins with bit-part actress Julie Sawyer (Kristy McNichol) hitting a dog in her car late one night. She takes it to a vet and nurses it back to health at her home whilst she waits for someone to pick it up. When no one comes, she decides to keep it. She soon discovers however that the German Shepherd has been trained as an attack dog, and not just any attack dog, but a ‘white dog’, one that has been conditioned to specifically go for black people on sight.
Julie’s boyfriend and others try to convince her to put the dog down as well as a renowned Hollywood animal trainer (Burl Ives) who spots its evil mindset. However, a black trainer at the same site, Keys (Paul Winfield), vows to do everything in his power to un-train the beast. Julie agrees to let him do his work and the film follows the difficult process to see if this hatred can be eradicated.
Clearly looking at institutional racism in general, the film is anything but racist. Very few films have tackled the issue so brazenly and it always shows racism in an incredibly negative, animalistic light. In fact it’s constantly damning the practise. On top of that, here’s a film with an educated, strong and sympathetic black central character and is devoid of any racial stereotypes, attributes which are sadly still relatively rare in modern mainstream cinema.
Unfortunately, as bold as the film is in tackling an ever-present issue, it does this rather bluntly. Writer/director Samuel Fuller has never been the subtlest of filmmakers, but here, because the message is so vital to the drive of the film, it can be more cumbersome than usual. The main problem is the fact that, beyond the debates the film brings up, there isn’t much else going on. The story is extremely slight, so the film feels to be moving rather slowly for its short running time, especially considering how bombastic the central concept and much of the action is.
Fuller isn’t quite running on all cylinders either. He’s clearly very interested in the topic so has put a lot of heart and soul into the content, but doesn’t quite deliver the punchy attention-grabbing cinema he’s famed for. His camera setups aren’t quite as exciting as those in his greater works for instance and the female lead is a little dull. There are a couple of tense sequences though and a great ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ shot where a black child can be seen on one side of the frame, playing out of view of the dog, and is taken inside by his mother just at the right moment.
I’ve seen a fair few of Fuller’s films and have loved most of them, he’s probably the ballsiest writer/director Hollywood has ever produced and this continued that trend. Straddling multiple genres over his career and always doing so as loudly and aggressively as he can, he was a force to be reckoned with. Unfortunately, White Dog sees him being ballsy with the subject matter but letting the rest of things slide a bit. Watching a documentary on dogs in L.A. a couple of days after this, I couldn’t help but feel that Fuller’s film would have made a better documentary than a fiction film. I’d love to explore the mindset of the trainers for instance and the lack of narrative drive and drama could have been more easily forgiven.
That said, there’s still a lot of meat to chew on (no pun intended) whilst watching White Dog so I’d still recommend people watch it. As a think-piece or conversation starter, the film is top notch. It’s just a shame that, as a film, it isn’t particularly effective.
White Dog is out on 31st March in the UK on Dual Format Blu-Ray and DVD, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema Series. I watched the DVD version and it looked fantastic. At first I thought it might have been the Blu-Ray, it looked that good. Audio is strong too.
There aren’t any special features of note on the disc, but luckily you’re supplied with the customary Masters of Cinema booklet, which is excellent as always. As well as the usual essay on the film, it’s got a rather unusual ‘interview’ between Fuller and the film’s canine star. Written entirely by Fuller, this is silly in presentation, but insightful as to the writer/director’s feelings on the film and subject matter.