White Dog: Fuller Vs. Racism

Nov 28, 2008

No movie is ahead of its time, just ahead of cultural gatekeepers. Sam Fuller knew this better than any other filmmaker after his 1982 White Dog waited almost ten years to get a theatrical release. Despite Fuller’s career-long penchant for giving controversial subjects a punchy, exploitation-movie spin, White Dog (his twenty-first feature) was the first to suffer outright suppression. Due to the film’s impudent premise, in which a Los Angeles actress, Julie Sawyer (Kristy McNichol), innocently discovers a guard dog trained to attack African Americans—a metaphor for socially indoctrinated racism—Fuller met with extraordinary industry and public resistance. His deliberate provocation, indicting social naïveté as well as film industry routine, worked too well. The film couldn’t slip under Paramount’s radar like earlier Fuller outrages, since B-movie exhibition no longer existed by the 1980s. Instead, White Dog was dumped in a television graveyard, before it was eventually released to theaters as a specialty art movie in 1991.

Paramount had quietly shelved the film after the Beverly Hills–Hollywood branch of the NAACP objected to its inflammatory subject matter and content. NAACP spokesperson Collette Wood protested, “We’re against the whole thrust of the film and what it says about racism, especially with the rise of the Klan, which always occurs during bad economic times.” That was enough to scare off an unenthusiastic distributor. Paramount was launching a box-office armada—American Gigolo, Urban Cowboy, An Officer and a Gentleman, 48 Hrs., Flashdance—and Fuller’s complex sociological moral tale didn’t fit into its widely touted High Concept formula for success.

As always, Fuller counted on the culture’s political awareness. White Dog required that viewers make the leap from historical memory and social consciousness to cinematic imagination—the same license Fuller had enjoyed when his movies were part of a studio’s broad release slate (although, even then, The Steel Helmet, Pickup on South Street, and China Gate had encountered bureaucratic opposition, the first two from the FBI, for being unpatriotic, the last from a French government offended by his view of the Indochina crisis). In the early eighties, Fuller’s views on race didn’t fit pop fashion; the previous decade of blaxploitation movies that took zealous, defensive positions on racism had recently concluded. Audiences were moving on, while Fuller still enjoyed his venerable pulp-didactic mode.

In White Dog, Fuller views social problems with as much commitment as in his fifties and sixties movies, but the anachronistic uniqueness of the film’s polemical thrust was confirmed by the range of incomprehension shown by Paramount and the NAACP. Fuller’s sense of social responsibility was both disregarded and misunderstood. He wasn’t exploiting racism but defining its least suspected characteristics (highlighting such seemingly harmless activities as pet care and the casual passing on of ­attitudes to children) and imagining what happens when conscientious people seek to end it. Fuller typically confronts/assaults mainstream political naïveté. In this sense, neither Paramount nor the NAACP was being censorial, just practical.

It is crucial to remember how Fuller’s idiosyncratic approach to the social-protest film (very different from that of the equally earnest mainstream lecturer Stanley Kramer) had inspired a movement of underground pulp sensationalism that flourished in the late sixties and early seventies as exploitation movies. This was the period when Fuller’s B-movie peer Phil Karlson had a late-career comeback with the vigilante tale Walking Tall, which became a box-office hit concurrently with the popularity of Fuller’s spiritual heir, the satirist Larry Cohen, who was fitting social and economic critique into the blaxploitation genre with Black Caesar, Bone, and Hell up in Harlem. These films were not far from Fuller’s agitpulp, fulfilling his longtime aim of message and medium achieving a seamless mergence.

But by the 1980s, such political sensationalism was out of sync with popular taste. Film culture no longer evinced the ethical fervor that made Fuller’s Korean War drama The Steel Helmet so timely and evocative. White Dog faced an audience that was being weaned on escapism. How could that audience grasp Fuller’s eccentric sensibility, which intentionally juxta­posed the perfidies of war playing on a TV set with a young woman fighting for her life during a home invasion?

With White Dog, Fuller moved his investigation of man’s inhumanity to man from the blood-soaked battlefield and dank underworld to the everyday—specifically, the Hollywood Hills and Hollywood soundstages. Never afraid to explore social anxieties, Fuller used these innocuous locations to show how racism erupts irrationally into ordinary life, making viewers confront both the fears that create racism and the paranoia that racism effects upon perpetrators and victims: Julie’s canine affection and comfortable cinematic employment are shattered by the specter of social hatred. Fuller had matter-of-factly dramatized a mixed-race Army patrol in The Steel Helmet to address the way racial attitudes operated within the U.S. military, but that film was also a prescient vision of America’s coming social protest. In White Dog, Fuller observed society after the sixties’ Voting Rights Act, urban riots, white suburban flight, and the seventies’ urban paranoia. He traced the roots of racism, using a profound cultural image: the attack dog that southern white bigots sicced on civil rights protestors during sit-ins, student protests, and demonstrations of the 1960s. Fuller utilized the legendary figure of the attack dog in order to expose racism and its casual, deliberate indoctrination.

Fuller had most powerfully explored civil rights era anxiety in his 1963 Shock Corridor. It was another mixed-cast drama, this time featuring the African American actor Hari Rhodes as a college student who goes crazy because he isn’t able to finesse the integrationist program or combat the racism he faces. Rhodes has a monologue that spells out Fuller’s political sensitivity: "I wish I’d had the guts to have stuck it out. I was brought up to have pride in my country—call it esprit de corps. It’s inside me. I love it. It’s even a blessing to love my country, even when it gives me ulcers. And those ulcers will stop the day all schools must get an education before being allowed to open their doors. I can’t blame the students. They were brought up to hate the color of my skin; it’s their . . . their blueprint for delinquency, the birth of lynching and the disease carried to those yet unborn. Those poor sick children were taught to depend on their parents’ claws instead of their love. And the irony of it is that many Negroes are mulatto and integration is well established down south."

The central metaphor of White Dog is unsettling because it posits that racism—and its terrible psychological effects—have not vanished from the American social and cultural experience, and will not without a conscious effort. In this way it is Fuller’s most audacious film. Tragically, Fuller’s stylized radicalism clashed with Paramount’s timidity and the NAACP’s bourgeois taste. Neither institution was able to accept Fuller’s provocative proposition—that racism is a matter of deliberate instillation for people as much as for the titular white German shepherd and that it requires a cure. To that end, Fuller wasn’t afraid to transform a sociological tract into a potentially popular monster movie. “He’s not a monster,” Julie says, defending her pet. “He was turned into one by a two-legged racist.” The line is risible only if you ignore Fuller’s urgency.

White Dog doesn’t sentimentalize Fuller’s interest in social progress, but his longtime commitment to it is evident in the film’s simple yet momentous storybook morality—and in its casting. Paul Winfield’s role as Keys, the animal trainer who vows to reeducate the animal, to teach that “it’s useless to attack black skin,” carries over the progressive emotionalism of his oppressed black sharecropper in Martin Ritt’s 1972 Sounder. Fuller’s high-strung protagonists never overplay the seriousness of the social dilemmas being depicted: the shot of Keys gazing sorrow­fully upon one of the white dog’s fatalities matches the close-up shot of Julie Sawyer’s quiet shame. Winfield’s characterization assumes an upright stance that, significantly, also invokes Fuller’s earlier casting of James Edwards in The Steel Helmet. (Edwards had performed the almost mythic role of the black GI shocked out of post-traumatic stress in Kramer’s 1949 production Home of the Brave.) Like with Hari Rhodes’s courageous portrayal of the neurotic civil rights student in Shock Corridor, Fuller uses these African American actors to embody a human answer to a social dilemma. Such sensitivity enriches Fuller’s bold, pulpy socio­logical confrontation in White Dog.

The film’s finest image is outlandish yet full of meaning, coherent with the race-based images in The Steel Helmet and Shock Corridor: Fuller contrasts an elegant black hand approaching the rabid, ravenous snarl of a white-furred German shepherd—and calming the beast. It symbolizes Keys’s insistence to reeducate rather than exterminate racism. This is true to Fuller’s career-long humanitarian vision. Winfield’s role in White Dog suggests the film is a social reformer’s version of The Miracle Worker. Not just a horror movie, it’s also a morality play about curing instinctual blindness.

Ironically, White Dog still seemed ahead of its time during its eventual 1990s release. It came after the fashionably multiculti eighties, when world music and hip-hop altered the reception of racial content in popular entertainment and black stars like Eddie Murphy and Whoopi Goldberg successfully advanced upon the mainstream. This was also the period when the term “white” was first being interrogated by linguists, academics, and cultural critics for its subterranean connotations of power, correctness, and ideological consensus. Fuller, unsurprisingly, was ahead of all that groupthink. In Shock Corridor’s story of a wrong­headed crusading newspaper reporter, a character laments, “Too many intellectuals afraid to use the pistol of common sense.” White Dog corrects that cowardice. It dares to advance the liberal Hollywood tradition, but in true Fuller style, it also bites the hand that takes it for granted.

Armond White is film critic for the New York Press. His expanded essay What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Movies will be published by Resistance Media in early 2009.