This is a time in America where white people cannot in good conscience afford to be comfortable.
President Donald Trump made his entire political campaign on white people’s comfort and their fear.
By extension, this means his campaign emboldened 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, we’re gonna talk about Samuel Fuller’s 1982 racially charged half social drama/half monster movie, 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 a friend to its white audiences. The film is a bloodthirsty animal, and that animal is hungry for good old fashioned American racism.
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 single-mindedly and brutally attacks black people.
Her dog is a White Dog, one of the animals trained and conditioned to attack black people during race riots and protests.
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 white Julie 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 it’s always capable of violence and nastiness. It is a part of the family we can pet and feed. It is a beast that snarls and snaps, and we act surprised.
And, much like the way white folks have done for that one racist uncle, 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. Julie is the voice of white people uncomfortable with our legacy racism. It's not our dog, but we keep it around to keep us "safe." We try to ignore all the ways it doesn't make the world safe for everyone else.
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, intense 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. Everything else is best left encountered with fresh eyes. This movie is one of the few movies directed and written by white people about racism that’s worth anything. This is not Paul Haggis' Crash, with its grade-school theses on how "race is complicated." This is not Richard Attenborough's Cry Freedom, where we can say we're Kevin Kline and not the rest of apartheid South Africa.
Samuel Fuller chose a dog to engage the audience's sympathies, and assert that racism isn't something we can pick and choose. The dog is a bad dog, not a bad dog sometimes but good when it serves us.
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. In choosing a dog for his metaphor, Fuller puts every on-the-fence person of privilege on notice. Why love a dog that wounds? That kills? What justifies your unwillingness to do something about all this blood and noise?
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, meaner, and more comfortable staying around.
Even if we love it, even if we know that in the right circumstances it wouldn’t hurt a fly, we as a country need to look deep inside ourselves, and ask tough questions about this dog.
In 2016 we’ve seen a Rachel Dolezal memoir, the Election of Donald Trump, and more police shootings and brutality than ever broadcast before. And it only seems to be getting worse.
Trump is counting on every white American to keep their White Dogs' tails wagging. He wants all of us to defend the White Dog even as it bites and barks at people of color.
We are living in the Years of the Dog.
Like Keys at the end of the film, and the end of his patience,
We need to do what’s right.
We need to put this dog down.