I grew up in America in the ’70s and ’80s, but apparently I was oblivious to a scourge that tormented the nation during those decades: canine racism. I’m not talking about dogs goose-stepping with little swastika armbands around their legs (although that would be awfully cute…in a bad way, of course), but rather dogs trained to attack and kill black people.
As the early ’80s film White Dog explains, dogs were trained in slavery days to track down escaped slaves, and then after slavery ended, they were used to retrieve escaped black convicts. By modern times, the process had evolved into the training of dogs to attack at the sight of black skin. To add insult to injury, the dogs themselves were white, in case you forgot why you’re being mauled to death.
The film stars androgynous teen icon Kristy McNichol as Julie, an aspiring actress who hits said “white dog” with her car and, racked with guilt, takes it in. A “fatal attraction” of sorts develops, as it becomes evident that poochie has some issues to resolve. In steps jingly black animal trainer Keys (Paul Winfield), who vows to cure the dog within five weeks, declaring, “If I can’t break him, I’ll shoot him.” It’s a deal!
White Dog plays like a twisted after-school special, ripe with heavy-handed allegorical content, hate crimes and Burl Ives. If this movie had been more popular, it would’ve been the subject of countless high school English papers about how the dog symbolizes racism and how hard it is to control. The A-plus students might’ve brought up the fact that dogs are color-blind, and the uber-nerds may have even mentioned that Winfield ironically played Martin Luther King, Jr. in the miniseries King. Sure, the message of White Dog is nice and all, but watching a man “break” a dog for 45 minutes could only be considered entertainment below the Mason-Dixon line.
Strangely, this was based on a true story that happened to tragic actress Jean Seberg (no, she wasn’t eaten by a dog). She took in a hound that she subsequently discovered would attack black people but was friendly to whites. This must have been in the 1960s, maybe in France (?), so the rest of the story here was fiction it seems.
Director Sam Fuller was incredibly right on even before that was a “thing”, but he stumbled here, and it broke his heart a bit. If he’d made it trashier he might have had a hit, though maybe not with the sort of folks he intended. Part of the Criterion Collection now!