REVIEW – White Dog (1982)
FilmJuice have my review of the recent Masters of Cinema release of Samuel Fuller’s racially-themed horror film White Dog.
Cutting to the chase, I really enjoyed this film. Set on the margins of Hollywood, the film tells of an actress who happens to run over a beautiful white Alsatian dog. Forced to take responsibility to the animal after taking it to the vet, the actress nurses it back to health and has all of her care and attention redeemed when the animal protects her from a rapist who breaks into her home. Fuller shoots the dog at night using spotlights that reflect against the whiteness of the fur but not the background meaning that the dog appears to glow in an almost spectral fashion. The otherwordliness of the dog is put to brilliant use when it escapes the actress’s yard and begins attacking black people: The pure white dog devouring black people and covering itself in blood is as striking and troubling an image of racism as you could possibly imagine. Part of what makes these images so troubling is the fact that they could just as easily have been inserted into a film about a heroic white dog that eats evil black people. However, to look upon these scenes as racist or problematic is to ignore the wider context of the film and how the film is really about trying to cure racism:
Fuller intends the dog (tellingly referred to as ‘Mr Hyde’) to serve as a metaphorical representation of human racism and, to a certain extent, he does: One point the film repeatedly makes is that there is nothing ‘natural’ about the dog’s hatred of black people; his fear and hatred were deliberately engineered by people who wanted to use his savagery as a tool of racial segregation and oppression. Another point the film makes is that the techniques required to train a racist dog were pioneered in the days of slavery when plantation owners had a vested interest in keeping vicious attack dogs that would happily kill a black person but never think to harm a white person. These two ideas certainly mesh with contemporary thoughts on social justice and they make a very interesting point about how the racist attitudes that continue to be perpetuated today originated in a time when extreme and dehumanising patterns of racist thought underpinned an entire economic system. Fuller’s metaphorical racist dog also represents how difficult it can be to wean oneself away from racist thought and how some attitudes can be so deeply engrained that unravelling them is tantamount to unravelling an entire personality. However, Fuller’s metaphor only goes so far.
While I think that Fuller’s position is somewhat outdated (one of the first things you learn about social justice is that it’s a white person’s duty to educate themselves and not to be ‘saved’ by black and minority ethnic people) I don’t think it’s racist. In fact, I think that White Dog is a thoughtful and intellectually intense film that tries to grapple with a huge and incredibly different problem. What I don’t understand is the logic of using an intensely problematic piece of fiction as a springboard for that engagement.
White Dog is based on a book by the French novelist Romain Gary which tells the semi-autobiographical story of a dog who has been trained to attack black people on sight. As in the film, a black animal trainer steps in and tries to cure the animal but rather than getting rid of the animal’s murderous urges entirely, the trainer simply reprograms the animal to attack white people instead. As I explain in the review, Gary intended this as a critique of civil rights activists who, in his opinion, were training people to be ‘intolerant of intolerance’. From J. Hoberman’s interesting piece about the film:
Gary and his then wife, actress Jean Seberg, find a stray German shepherd that, they soon discover, has been raised to attack black people on sight. Although told that the dog is too old to be deconditioned, they turn him over to an animal trainer who turns out to be a Black Muslim and vengefully reprograms the creature to maul whites—including, at the book’s climax, Gary himself. (Some of the vengeance in this “found” allegory belongs to the author: Gary disapproved of his wife’s public support of the Black Panther Party, a political stance that put her under FBI investigation.)
This attempt to set up an equivalence between systemic white racism and angry reaction to that racist system will be familiar to anyone who remembers the much-lamented Derailing For Dummies site as the ‘You’re As Bad as They Are!’ defence:
Because they’re angry about the treatment they undergo and because they are aggressive and persistent in wanting to see change happen, you can target this behaviour (remembering that it is unseemly for Marginalised People™ – they’re supposed to set an example at all times by being humble and long suffering) by suggesting it puts them on a par with the people and system that stigmatise, ostracise and target them every second of every day of their lives. This also suggests that reacting to such discrimination is totally unreasonable and out of proportion (they should just take their knocks!) and that has the benefit of indicating your ignorance to just how pervasive and constant this discrimination truly is.
Thankfully, Fuller does not follow Gary down that particular political rabbit hole but it I can’t imagine anyone wanting to base a contemporary critique of racism on a book that suggests black civil rights activists are morally equivalent to people who train their animals to attack black people on sight.