(for all pieces, go here)
When I was a kid, my neighborhood was full of dogs, most of them the size of Yugos. These massive beasts would chase us around the neighborhood, forcing us to jump on top of cars, leap over tall gates in a single bound, and run into houses of people we may or may not have known. As ghetto luck would have it, the worst son of a bitch was always en route to somewhere you had to go every day. For me, that dog was on Clinton Avenue, and his name was King. King was an all black German Shepherd with a crooked ear. He was behind a green and white gate in a yard owned by an old man we called Old Cat. We knew that, though disguised as a dog, King was actually the Devil. Since we knew King’s secret, he tried to eat us every time we walked by.
Once, King jumped over his gate and got into a type of Mexican standoff with the street sweeper. The sweeper wanted to push the trash from off the street onto the sidewalk, and King wouldn’t move. This went on for a few moments as the sweeper honked and honked. My cousin and I watched with rapt attention turned horror as the sweeper driver suddenly ran King over, pushing him on the sidewalk. We ran for his owner, who carried King off the street. We felt sad--oh, who the hell am I kidding? We were elated that King was out of commission. We just didn’t want him to die; we wanted him just to be less active.
Two days later, with big ass staples in his head and a cone around his neck, King was chasing us again. He even pulled my cousin off her bicycle and bit her, which she deserved: How the hell can you not outrun a dog on a 10 speed?
Like I said, King was the Devil.
If King had been white, he’d look just like the lead actor in Samuel Fuller’s 1981 film, White Dog. The story is based on a novel by Romain Gary, and its titular character is a dog trained to attack Black people. While the film did good biz in Europe, it caused so much controversy here that Paramount shipped it off to cable until 1991, when it was given a proper screening at NYC’s Film Forum. Fuller was apparently devastated at being thought a racist, especially since much of his work has an anti-racist undercurrent. (My favorite moment of this nature is in Shock Corridor where a Black guy in the loony bin thinks he’s a Klansman. Bet you thought Dave Chappelle thought up that concept.) White Dog served as Fuller’s last Hollywood film.
I don’t see what the big deal was. Horror movies are supposed to be about that which terrifies us, and what better to terrify Black people than some big White conspiracy that only goes after them. Several movies in the past have addressed this issue with little or no controversy (see Three the Hard Way’s lethal to Blacks only poisoned water). White Dog actually tries to be a serious art film as opposed to Cujo’s chocolate flavored precursor. It is well shot, well acted by credible leads, and features a score by Ennio Morricone that alternates between beauty and terror, much like our lead actor. I was willing to buy White Dog’s premise—I’d heard about slave hunting dogs before. But the premise raised more fascinating questions than it answered.
Julie Sawyer (Kristy McNichol) accidentally runs over a white German Shepherd on a dark road. She takes it to the vet, and after paying $218 in 1981 money to get him sewn up, she takes the dog home to care for it until its owner can be found. Her boyfriend Roland Gray (Jameson Parker from Simon & Simon) tells her she should keep the dog as a protector since she lives on a large hill by herself. Julie doesn’t want the dog put to sleep, so she’s averse to sending him to the pound, but she can’t keep the dog either. She’s an actress and is always on casting calls. Julie changes her mind when the dog saves her from a rapist played by the film’s animal trainer, Karl Lewis Miller. The dog has earned his place in her household, and she’s bonded with him to boot.
So far, so good. We’ve got the Lifetime Television Network version of Old Yeller. Except this is Old Whitey. The film never gives the dog a name, so I have to call him something. Old Whitey escapes from Julie’s house one night and sees a Black guy driving a street sweeper. As if avenging King, Old Whitey jumps into the cab of a moving vehicle and chews the driver to bits, causing him to have a fatal accident. Fuller avoids graphic gore in the attack scenes, but they look and sound excruciatingly painful. After the attack, the dog returns home to Julie. He arouses little suspicion in Julie despite being covered in blood and looking, to quote Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction, “like a goddamned maxi pad.” She tosses the dog in the bathtub and gives him a bath.
Next, Julie gets an assignment playing the vanilla half of a traveling duo of cute women. She brings the dog to the set. As soon as he sees that fine cocoa-colored actress in the scene with Julie, Old Whitey makes a beeline for her. Much chewing ensues, putting the actress in the hospital and Julie into near shock.
Roland tells Julie that the dog must go. It’s an attack dog and needs to be put down. Julie is so against putting animals to sleep (an earlier scene in the pound has her bear witness to the act) that she seeks out a trainer to recondition the dog. She inexplicably goes to Carruthers and Keys, an animal training facility that rents out animals to movies just like this one. She meets Carruthers, a jovial older man played by Burl Ives. Ives is great casting; Fuller could only have done better by getting Wilford Brimley for this. Ives tells her, in that wonderful honey voice of his, that she needs to put a bullet in Old Whitey because he can’t be rewired. Right after he says this, one of Carruthers’ men comes to deliver some items. The guy has an Afro. You know what happens next. After Carruthers pulls the dog off the bruva, Carruthers yells “you got yourself a White Dog!” Julie responds “of course he’s white!” “NO,” says Carruthers, “a White Dog has been trained to attack only Blacks!” Suddenly, a big ass lightbulb goes off over Julie’s head.
Enter Keys, Carruthers’ partner. He’s played by Sounder’s Paul Winfield, and he’s got a thing for trying to recondition White Dogs. He decides to take Old Whitey in an attempt to teach him to love Blacks. Since this is well before BET, Keys is going to have to recondition the dog himself. Carruthers is completely against it, but Julie is hopeful. Numerous scenes depict the dog attacking Keys as he tries to recondition the dog’s attack functions. Curtis Hanson, cowriter of this (and LA Confidential) says that Winfield did all his own stunts, rolling around with the dog for hours in 102 degree weather so Fuller could get his shots.
Eventually, Old Whitey learns to trust Keys so much that he even accepts what looks like a Quarter Pounder from Keys’ hands (I would have killed for a White Dog Happy Meal promotion). This comes after Fuller adds a layer of complexity on our main human characters by making them complicit in one of Old Whitey’s murders. The dog escapes from its pen, outsmarts the electrified fence and goes after another Black man. He’s murdered under a stained glass window of St. Francis of Assissi (a known animal lover and proof of Fuller’s morbid sense of humor). Keys finds the dog and the body, but keeps the murderer from taking the rap so he can try to rewire him. Winfield’s speech justifying this is truly odd but somehow makes sense.
At the end of Romain Gary’s novel, Old Whitey has been reconditioned by Keys to attack White people. Fuller nixed this ending, saying it was racist. The film’s ending is satisfying but raises questions about what it means. Is Fuller saying that racism can’t be cured, that once you are “properly taught” you cannot be untaught because it might drive you insane? I mulled that question over in my head, but a line of dialogue made me think of more Afro-centric questions. Keys says that dogs only see in black and white. This led me to ask:
- Does the dog only attack dark skinned Blacks?
- I’m a redbone. Would the dog know to attack me, or am I too light for it to register?
- Does the dog have other ways of telling Blackness? Can it look at Vin Diesel’s nose and know he’s got to bite half of his ass? Would he look at Lena Horne’s hair and know it’s chow time? Can he listen to a voice and know, like I can on phone calls, that the person is Black?
- Whitney, yes? Beyonce, no?
- Can the dog be conditioned to also eat White people who act Black, like Justin Timberlake?
White Dog is well worth seeing. Fuller’s direction is tight, and the score is excellent. McNichol is surprisingly good, Ives is fun and Winfield is one determined Black man. His attempt to teach the dog Soul(TM) reminds me of all the times I’ve had to explain cultural things to my White colleagues and friends. Winfield’s teaching a hard-headed dog; I would hope that my lessons are making more impact.
You know, come to think of it, King never attacked my darker cousins. He only went after us “light-skinded” people. I realize now that King had a paper bag test. Ain’t this a bitch?!
Your homework assignment:
If you don’t know what a paper bag test is, look it up.