1982. Starring Kristy McNichol, Paul Winfield, Burl Ives.
Sam Fuller wanted to take on the world, and I love him for it. Just how I loved the advice he gave fellow director Jim Jarmusch — “If the opening scene doesn’t give you a hard-on, throw the goddamn thing out!” In White Dog, he takes on racism — and not overt racism, but the kind of racism that is bred into us, deep down into our instincts, that keeps us from all getting along.
Kristy McNichol stars as a Hollywood Hills actress who — in the opening scene — runs over a white German shepherd, and takes it to a veterinary hospital. She feels responsible, of course, and takes the dog home, where it bonds with her. The dog protects her from a rapist (although it doesn’t react while a war scene plays out on the TV), and McNichol comes to appreciate the dog’s devotion. The dog runs away, though, and attacks a black street-sweeper operator, and then a black co-star McNichol is working with, causing her to seek out a trainer for her pet. The dog, it’s explained, was trained as a “white dog,” a dog trained originally to track down slaves, then to attack black people. The fact that the dog is pure white doesn’t escape us. “Can’t the sick part of him be cut out, like a cancer?” she asks.
McNichol takes the dog to an animal refuge run by Burl Ives, who trains and tames wild animals, not domesticated pets like hers. Paul Winfield stars as the wild-animal trainer who takes on the challenge, admitting that he hasn’t succeeded with other white dogs. During a storm, the dog escapes and attacks a black man in a church. Winfield recovers the dog, and McNichol demands that he kill it. “So you’ve finally joined the club — a club of horrified people who raises holy hell about that disease — that racist hate — but do absolutely nothing to stamp it out,” he says. He demands to train the dog, but pledges that if he fails, he will get white dog after white dog until he’s eradicated the hate ingrained in its genes.
Winfield exhaustively works with the dog, feeding it, trying to work the hate out of its blood. He pulls back his shirt, displaying his skin, driving the dog mad. Eventually, the dog calms down, which to Winfield means that the dog has learned to accept a black man “that he knows.” The training continues, until a family shows up to claim him. In maybe the movie’s creepiest scene, McNichol meets the grandfather and his young grandkids who trained the “white dog,” and lets him know — “the dog has been cured. . .he’s been cured, by a black man!” It’s clear that the old man wants to pass along the white dog’s instincts to the young ones. The final scene is surprising.
I forgive Fuller’s sometimes ham-handed handling of this material. Certainly, no one was exploring the issue of internalized racism at this time — the movie studio didn’t want to deal with it either, not releasing it into U.S. theaters. But it’s well-acted and well-meant, and deserves to be seen. We certainly all need to be reminded of feelings held deep down inside that we aren’t aware of carrying on.
(I guarantee this: it’s the only movie in which Burl Ives pledges his love for sour cream and throws a dart at R2-D2.)