In 1968, the French novelist Roman Gary wrote a short story, later expanded into a full-length novel in 1970, called White Dog. The story was a fictionalized memoir. Gary and his wife, the American actress Jean Seaberg, adopt what they believe to be a friendly, well-trained German Shepherd, which they name Batka. Later, to their horror, they find out that Batka is a former Alabama police dog who’s been trained to attack black people on sight. Not wanting to have Batka “put down,” they take him to a black dog trainer to see if they can find a cure for its racism. But the dog trainer, who turns out to be a Black Muslim, doesn’t cure Batka. He retrains him to attack white people, including Gary himself.
Gary had written White Dog partly so that Roman Polanski could turn it into a movie. But the project stalled after Polanski was arrested for rape, then subsequently left the United States. In 1981, Paramount Pictures gave the project to the now renowned B-movie director Sam Fuller. Fuller rewrote the script to make White Dog a straight up denunciation of American racism. Seaberg, whose support for black nationalist causes Roman Gary had grown to hate, was replaced by struggling young actress named Julie Sawyer, and played by the now all but forgotten Kristy McNichol. The black Muslim became Carruthers, Berl Ives, and Keys, Paul Winfield, and elderly white man and a young black man who run an animal shelter called Noah’s Arc. They’re both sincere animal lovers and anti-racists who genuinely want to see the dog cured. The character of Roman Gary is written out of the script altogether.
White Dog was suppressed.
Sam Fuller, a World War II veteran who also directed classics like Steel Helmet and The Big Red One, was dismayed to find out that his film would not be given a distributor, partly because the NAACP had decided that the anti-racist script was actually racist. The film was later released in France and given a limited run on American television before finally getting picked up by Criterion, released as a DVD, and widely reviewed. I actually remember seeing White Dog on HBO in the 1980s. It felt like a heavy handed left-wing allegory, of which there were many in the late 70s and early 80s. I watched it again last night. My impressions were decidedly mixed.
Does White Dog deserve its cult status?
I suppose the answer would be “yes and no.” On one hand, it’s a hilariously bad, over the top, heavy handed melodrama with often wooden acting and dialog that explains the plot more than it dramatizes the interaction between people. Fuller puts no effort into making the film even remotely believable. The dog is more than just a vicious German Shepherd. Like the shark in Jaws, he’s a relentless, terrifying killing machine. White Dog requires a constant effort to suspend your disbelief. Neither of the two murders, one inside a church, is ever followed up on by the police, even though it would be pretty easy to figure out both men were killed by a vicious dog.
Once you do manage to suspend your disbelief, however, and look at White Dog as an allegory rather than a realistic drama, the film gets much more interesting.
White Dog opens with a pitch black screen that lasts so long you start to wonder if there are technical problems. It finally begins to make sense when a car slams on the brakes, and we hear a thump. Julie Sawyer, who had been driving through the Hollywood Hills in the dark, has hit a beautiful, white German Shepherd. She gets out, puts the dog inside her car, and takes him to a vet, who, after slapping her with an exorbitant bill, 250 dollars in 1981, tells her the dog is perfectly fine and advises her to put up “Dog Found” posters. She follows his advice, but no one shows up to claim the dog. Later, after a white, would be rapist breaks into her apartment, and the dog saves her, leaping through a plate glass window and restraining the man by locking its teeth around his forearm until the police show up, she decides to keep him.
Then he runs away.
Julie spends days in an agonizing search, going to the pound every day and waiting for the ASPCA trucks to come in. She doesn’t find her dog, but she does witness another dog being “put down,” gassed. The “white dog” finally comes back home after it murders a black street cleaner, showing up at Julie’s apartment covered in blood. You might think the blood would alert her to the fact that something isn’t right, but she doesn’t seem to have a clue. She washes him off in the bathtub and thinks no more of it. Later, after she brings the dog with her to a film shoot, and he savagely attacks a fellow actress, who’s black, Julie can no longer deny the obvious. This is no ordinary German Shepherd.
White Dog is not only about a vicious German Shepherd, but the obliviousness of most white people to racism. It’s always there, staring them in the face, covered in blood and gore, but they rarely, if ever notice it until they’re faced with a horrible reality they can’t possibly deny. Even then they sometimes deny it. Eric Garner, for example, was murdered on camera by the police, the trained attack dogs of white supremacy, and many white people still try to deny it had anything to do with race. Julie Sawyer is both a typical white woman, and yet a profoundly moral one. When she finally “gets it” she brings the dog to Noah’s Arc to see if she can get him cured without having him gassed. Even though the dog has killed, she wants to save its life. She’s still traumatized after having witnessed the dog “put down” at the pound.
Once Julie drops the dog off at Noah’s Arc, White Dog becomes Keys’ movie. Keys is determined to save the dog, even after it kills yet another black man. Why? I suppose that Keys, like most black men, realizes that whites are the majority in the United States. Unless white people can be cured of their racism, there’s no hope at all for American society. He also realizes that racism comes from early childhood abuse. The way you create a “White Dog,” he explains to Julie, is to find some black drunk or junkie who’s desperate for a fix, and have him savagely beat the dog from the time he’s a puppy.
Is Keys right?
I’d say yes and no. Most white people don’t become racists because they’ve been mistreated by black people, but because they’ve been trained by their parents. On the other hand, parents who train their children to be racists are usually violent, emotionally and physically abusive. It’s hard to imagine a genuine racist – as opposed to someone who’s merely cluless like Julie — coming from a loving, supportive, open-minded family.
Keys devotes himself full time to retraining the dog, to associating black skin with kindness and generosity. He makes sure that nobody but himself gives the dog food. He pets him, caresses him, gently faces him down when he bares his teeth, progressively allows him less restraint and more freedom of movement, even as he progressively bares more and more of his black skin. Finally, he starts to introduce the dog to a black man who hasn’t fed him. When he feels he’s been successful, he calls Julie back to Noah’s Arc as an observer.
Roman Gary’s dog trainer was a black nationalist who trained the dog to take revenge on white people. Fuller’s movie ends on a much more subtle, ambiguous, if equally pessimistic note. As Keys demonstrates to Julie that the dog is no longer a killer, his own perceptions begin to fall apart. He sees the dog as vicious when he’s not. He sees him baring his teeth in attack mode, when, in fact, he’s simply walking in his direction. A black man who has had to face down white racism, Fuller tells us, becomes damaged himself, paranoid, unable to see his own success. He will have to retrain himself even as he retrained the dog. Keys may not be a black nationalist, but he now sees white people as vicious and evil.
But there’s yet another twist. Keys does not succeed in redeeming the “white dog.” He merely disassociates the abuse he suffered as a puppy from black skin. Earlier, when the dog’s real owner had come to claim him from Julie, we noticed that he was a nice little old man with two angelic blond grandchildren. When she confronts him over having trained a “white dog,” however, he turns vicious and hateful. Racists, Fuller is telling us, aren’t obvious monsters. They can be perfectly good people when they’re among “their own kind.” It’s only when they meet black people, or white anti-racists, that the fangs come out. Keys, in effect, unintentionally repeats what Roman Gary’s black nationalist had done deliberately. After several false charges, where the dog appears to be baring his teeth, only to be revealed as trotting up to Keys in a friendly manner, he charges Keys’ business partner, Carruthers, an old white man who looks a lot like his original owner. Keys is unsure if it’s another false alarm. It’s not. The dog jumps on top of Carruthers and viciously attacks him. Keys shoots him dead.
Racists, as it turns out, will have to be “put down” after all.