This is a time in America where white people cannot in good conscience afford to be comfortable. President-elect Donald Trump makes his entire political campaign on white people’s comfort. By extension, this means his campaign emboldens those who hate. Racists and bigots of all stripes lined up for his rallies and crowded the ballot boxes to Make America Hate Again. As such, this grand racist reframing poses a threat to each and every non-white person in this stained-white-wife-beater wearing nation we’ve sloppily made.
So, for today’s recommendation we’re gonna talk about Samuel Fuller’s 1982 racially charged drama, White Dog.
White Dog is one of those uncomfortable movies. Samuel Fuller, director and co-writer* of the film, developed a reputation for highly political and controversial material. He focused much of his film career on racial issues and maintained a life of active political resistance when he wasn’t behind the camera.
So, when he makes White Dog, know in your heart that this film is not your friend. The film is a bloodthirsty animal, and that animal is hungry for good old fashioned American racism.
(*I say co-writer because in my research I discovered the other writer to be none other than Curtis Hanson, the writer and director of 8 Mile! Also known as the guy in my last cultural recommendation that looked for all the world like an adjunct professor at an after hours hip hop cypher.)
White Dog follows a young actress, Julie, in Hollywood as she finds a stark-white German Shepherd and takes it in. She soon discovers, though, at a commercial film shoot with a black actress, that her dog has been trained to attack black people. Her dog is a White Dog, one of the animals trained and conditioned to suppress black people during riots.
And here’s where Sam Fuller gets to telling it like it is, guys. I don’t need a film degree to tell you that the dog, the white German Shepherd, represents the deeply ingrained racism of white people, more specifically American white people. Around our white actress and her white boyfriend and white friends, the dog is docile. He’s actually cute and lovable, because he’s a fucking dog. Who doesn’t love dogs?
But at that commercial shoot? When he sees that black actress?The dog turns monstrous and before anybody can react, and starts eating the poor woman’s neck. That’s racism. It’s fine, barely noticeable around those it benefits, but always capable of violence and nastiness.
And, like white folks have done for that one racist uncle for millennia, Julie insists over and over that the White Dog is a good boy. That he just got confused. That he didn’t mean it. She all but swears the Dog is simply “from a different time.” She finally relents, however, and takes the dog to a professional animal trainer to try and save him.
First, the trainer swears the dog can’t be untrained. Then, in a desperate gamble, hands the dog and its problems over to his capable and charming business partner, Keys (the closest thing in the film to an actual hero and played subtly and powerfully by Paul Winfield.)
That’s all the plot you need to start. Trust me, though, this movie is one of the few movies directed and written by white people about racism that’s worth anything. The White Dog is with my grandfather, the White Dog is with my father, hell the White Dog is with me.
That’s the point. It’s a cute little doggie, it wouldn’t want to hurt anybody, but it can’t help how it grew up, and it can’t be trusted not to do what it was trained to do.
Racism is so under the American skin it might as well be bone.
Every white person in America has adopted a White Dog, and they’re not always out for blood. The scene where Julie meets the dog’s original owner meets every expectation and demonstrates a director at the height of his powers as a filmmaker and provocateur.
If you’re white and reading this, know that when you get nervous on the subway and clutch your purse, when you say “All Lives Matter,” when you excuse family and friends who vote for bigotry and oppression, know that you are feeding the dog. Know, really know, that the dog is getting bigger. Even if we love it, even if we know that in the right circumstances he wouldn’t hurt a fly, we as a country need to look deep inside ourselves, and put that poor dog down.
In 2016 we’ve seen a Rachel Dolezal memoir, the Election of Donald Trump, and more police shootings and brutality than ever broadcast before.
We are living in the Year of the Dog.
We need to do what’s right.