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'White Dog': Samuel Fuller's brilliant thesis on American racism

'White Dog' - Samuel Fuller

Samuel Fuller is often counted among those few American pioneers who completely revolutionised the cinematic art form. Through incredible gems such as Underworld U.S.A. and Shock Corridor, Fuller constructed a vision of cinema which inspired the French New Wave in more ways than one. Unfortunately, one of Fuller’s greatest achievements did not receive the exposure it warranted in America and that film was White Dog.

In the entire history of cinema, very few directors have had a biography that is as wild and fascinating as that of Samuel Fuller. He started out by exploring the seedy underbelly of New York City as a crime reporter when he was a teenager and all those experiences left an indelible mark on his perception of the world which later manifested into pulp novels and a prodigious output of screenplays.

It is due to those same pulp sensibilities that White Dog has such a powerful kick to it. The film uses extremely direct allegory (as is often the case with Fuller’s work) in its attempt to uncover the very foundations of racism in America, following the misadventures of an actress named Julie (played by Kristy McNichol) who rescues a white German Shepherd after accidentally running it over.

Fuller was extremely skilled at complicating the moral dynamics of the text, co-writing the screenplay with Curtis Hanson which was based on a novel by Romain Gary. The source material was actually a fictionalised memoir that presented his wife – Jean Seberg – as the one who brought the white dog home only to discover that the dog was trained by police authorities in America to attack Black individuals on sight.

In their own treatment, Fuller and Hanson went into hyper-focus mode while telling the bizarre story of this racist dog. Although Paramount had purchased the rights for the film back in 1975, the project only got a green light after Gary committed suicide in 1980 which was linked to the 1979 suicide of Seberg but Gary denounced such connections in a suicide note that he had left behind.

Interestingly, the project was apparently approved by producer Don Simpson who is now remembered for hits such as Beverly Hills Cop and Top Gun. The project was pitched as a “Jaws with paws” film since many studios were trying to cash in on the unprecedented impact that Steven Spielberg’s summer blockbuster had on the market trends. Roman Polanski and Arthur Penn were initially attached to the project but thankfully, Fuller took over because I can’t imagine any other director who would have been a better fit for this job.

White Dog is terrifyingly unique, showcasing the deep-rooted propagation of racism and how it has operated throughout the history of America. At first glance, Fuller’s hyperbolic take on the issue through the story of a white dog attacking Black people seems too reductive. Hell, it even has a scene where the white dog murders an innocent Black victim in a church under the image of Saint Francis of Assisi as if Fuller was doubling down on the blatant commentary about the intrinsic hypocrisy of America.

The white dog acts as the white saviour by saving the white actress from a rapist after a patriotic viewing of a war movie, eventually using its capacity for violence to terrorise Black people. Even the dog’s supposed love for Julie is dubious because it feels like a display of chauvinistic, possessive attachment to the patriarchal definitions of white purity. These prejudices are laid bare when Julie takes the dog to an experienced trainer named Keys (brilliantly portrayed by Paul Winfield).

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In the original novel, the trainer was a radical Black Muslim who retrained the white dog to attack white people but Fuller changes that scenario and that’s why the film is better. Keys belongs to a very accomplished family but his contempt for academia pushed him towards a more active life, a life that has been dedicated to the study of animal behaviour and his experience with white dogs (like the titular protagonist) makes him an expert on the psychology of racism as well.

Since Fuller removed the motivations for revenge from the mind of the trainer, the film conducts a very interesting revision of the trope of the Black hero. As some commentators have noted, Keys escapes from the clichés of the stereotypical Black hero because he is committed to the task of acting as the saviour for a problem that is not defined by his own struggles as a Black man. This detail becomes incredibly important as Keys continues to battle the vicious dog, using it to analyse just how potent the pedagogy of American racism is.

Fuller’s central thesis is very effective to this day, using the chilling image of a white German Shepherd with its menacing growl to show how unlearning racism is almost impossible. It also empathises with the dog itself, constantly reminding the audience that the dog was abused as a puppy by its racist masters and that’s why the cycle of racism hasn’t been broken yet. For modern viewers, one look at the “edgy” memes that circulate on the Internet is enough evidence to reach the undeniable conclusion that newer generations have inherited racism the same way.

White Dog uses Fuller’s signature style to tell this strangely moving story, using dynamic close-ups and a fantastic score by none other than Ennio Morricone which pull the viewer into this strange world. The camera shows all kinds of animals within the domain of the world inhabited by Keys, documenting trainers working with wild beasts such as lions, tigers and bears but none of them are remotely as scary as that racist white dog (in reality, five different dogs were used for the film) ready to attack and kill any People of Colour nearby.

The NAACP actually protested against the subject matter of the film and called White Dog racist but in retrospect, Fuller’s masterpiece was way ahead of its time. Even though he used pulpy techniques and blatant imagery to tell a ridiculously simple story, most of the film’s investigations about the ontology of ‘whiteness’ and the implicit power dynamics are actually questions that were being asked by prominent social scientists and academic theorists.

Sadly, the film was shelved by Paramount after being released in Detroit with almost no marketing campaign. Fuller was heartbroken and ended up relocating to France, having decided to never direct an American production ever again. “It’s difficult to express the hurt of having a finished film locked away in a vault, never to be screened for an audience,” he confessed. “It’s like someone putting your newborn baby in a goddamned maximum-security prison forever.”

Despite being so cruelly rejected when it first came out, White Dog has emerged as a definitive take on American racism and the country’s deep-seated relationship with violence. While many directors have chosen to approach such a caustic subject with caution, Fuller is uncompromising in his frightening conclusion that racism cannot be rehabilitated and it cannot be lobotomised which is why White Dog remains unapologetically sui generis.