It’s the Dog That’s Racist: Discovering the Legend of White Dog

By Sexual Correspondent Andrea (AJ) Plaid

I’m glad I saw the legend, at least.

I had heard about Samuel Fuller’s film White Dog in whispers, like a deeper-than-the-FBI-and-the-Illuminati-plotting-in-Area-51 conspiracy theory among my more “conscious” Black acquaintances — mostly because the film was banned, though no one ever said exactly why.

Finally, a couple of weeks ago, I attended a screening of the film at the the Maysles Cinema in Harlem, hosted by the the Ego Trip hip hop collective – who are, in full disclosure, the R editrix’s heroes – as part of the movie’s house series, “I See White People,” billed in the theater’s program as a “quarterly series on the visibility of white racism, white privilege, and unacknowledged white culture.” Ego Trip’s Chairman Jefferson Mao added, deadpan, that the film was chosen because “we’re fans of the racist dog horror genre.”

To say the film’s history is “complex” should qualify it as one of the word’s understated synonyms. The history of the book upon which it’s based would qualify as another synonym. Spoilers and highlights from a Q&A discussion Ego Trip hosted after the screening are under the cut. (If you have a slightly deeper quick-and-dirty curiosity, read here.)

SPOILERS AHEAD

The plot is rather simple: Julie, a young white actor (played by 80s teen star Kristy McNichol) decides to adopt a white German shepherd she hit during a nighttime drive.  She thinks the dog is the perfect pet. However, other people suss something’s wrong with it, starting with the actor’s white boyfriend (Jameson Parker).  What’s wrong is the white dog is a “white dog,” a canine trained to lethally attack Black people, from the sanitation worker to the actor’s Black co-star to a random pedestrian.

When Julie finally recognizes this, she sends the dog to a wild-animal training refuge for re-education. The refuge’s owners are divided on what to do with it: Carruthers (Burl Ives), a white man, tells her the dog is a lost cause; Keys (Paul Winfield), a black man, reluctantly, then determinedly, tries to reform it.

Keys also explains to Julie that the dog’s behavior was probably the result of conditioning: the original owner paid homeless and/or drug-addicted Black people to abuse the dog when it was younger, to the point that the dog was conditioned to associate Black people and being attacked. This is underscored by an encounter between Julie and the owner, an older white man and his two granddaughters. Later, the dog, retrained to not attack Black people, hesitates about attacking Julie, then turns and runs towards Carruthers in teeth-baring mode. The dog leaps, and Keys shoots.

Director Roman Polanski was hired to direct White Dog in 1975 before his being brought up on statutory rape charges led him to leave the U.S.  Six years and several creative teams later, screenwriter Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential), who was to have worked with Polanski, and director Samuel Fuller took on the project (with the encouragement, curiously, of ex-Disney CEO Michael Eisner.)

At the time, the NAACP, along with other civil-right leaders and organizations, expressed concern that the film would spark racial violence, questioned using a book written by a white man (and a “pulpy” book at that), and criticized Paramount for hiring the mostly white film crew. The studio brought in two Black consultants to critique the Black characters. One, a vice-president at the local PBS station, said he found nothing wrong with the depictions; the other, an NAACP vice-president, thought the film would aggravate race relations in light of the Atlanta child murders occurring at the time.

Fearing a NAACP-threatened boycott, the studio shelved the project without telling Fuller. Infuriated by Paramount’s action, Fuller moved to France and “never directed another American film.” White Dog was theatrically released in France and the U.K. to positive reviews in 1982. The first time the movie appeared in wide release in the U.S. was as an edited-for-TV movie for cable in 1983. NBC planned to broadcast White Dog in 1984, but scrubbed the plan due to continued pressure from the NAACP. At best, some people may have caught the flick in the subsequent years in art-house movie houses and at film festivals. Finally, the Criterion Collection released White Dog on DVD in 2008.

The ensuing Q&A became a fascinating discussion of why the dog would have become such a trigger for the NAACP’s fear. As Ego Trip’s Gabriel Alvarez noted, “Using the dog to symbolize racism is interesting because the dog is seen as part of family.”

One audience member said that, because of the furor surrounding the Michael Vick dog-fighting scandal, the pop consciousness around dogs and African-Americans, especially men, would drastically alter White Dog’s reception if released today — especially in light of Keys having to kill the dog at film’s end. Other audience contributions from that night:

  • “The symbol of dog is ingrained into the consciousness of Black people with the civil rights movements with dogs and hoses.”
  • “I remember hearing about an MLK park where some people wanted to have a dog park.  But it became a big issue along racial lines.  What I found out was Black people felt it was disrespectful to have a dog park in a park named after MLK due to the history of dogs and Blacks and violence.”
  • “What the movie shows is that there’s a need to be truth and there needs to be reconciliation. What I’ve noticed is that young white people need to be aggressive with their parents regarding racism.”
  • “I want to know from white people how can white people facilitate change….”
  • “By creating such things as film. Yeah, the film is cheesy, but there’s also a film language that Fuller uses.”
  • “What people need to do is to understand and deconstruct that the country has been founded on inequality.”

The discussion turned to how the film dealt with racism itself, a topic I engaged in with Jefferson:

Me: It was a very ’80s message film.
The moderator responded that White Dog was “straightforward” about white racism.
Me: It was straightforward because it was the ’80s. So the racism was (more) obvious, so the message was obvious. Now it’s morphed into Glenn Beckian ‘I can be racist, but don’t call me a racist.’
Jefferson: Stylistically, it’s very 80s. But it was ahead of its time. Fuller’s career was interesting. He was known for a lot of B movies but tried to sneak in social issues. Yes, it’s 80s exploitation, but there are powerful moments, like the child getting whisked away while the dog is hunting.
Me: But saying that it’s very 80s isn’t a slag, but a simple observation.

After the Q&A, I shared my opinion with Gabriel that every decade has a “message” film about racism that is reflective of not only of time period stylistically, but also where ideas about racism were and are. The 80s had White Dog and John Sayles’ Brother from Another Planet. The 90s had John Sayles’ Lone Star, Anthony Drazan’s Zebrahead, and Tony Kaye’s American History X. All of them were “race message films” that were very much of their time.

Exiting the theater that night, I noted the strange irony — and hope – of the series being housed in an indie theater located in the nexus of white-gentrifying Harlem. Perhaps this series is a good tonic, if not a great meeting point, for whites and the PoCs left in Harlem to gather to talk about the transitioning nabe and how well-off whites gentrifying it isn’t simply viewed as a “the neighborhood changing” so much as a blithe takeover, fortified by unaddressed white privilege, of a perceived spiritual and physical home of some Black people and our allies in the US and the world. However, considering that two white couples who came to watch the flick left as soon as the film was over—and, as a result, tipped the Q&A audience to majority people of color. We’ll see.

The Maysles Cinema crew wants to take their “I See White People” series on tour. Next stop: Brooklyn, NY.