Because Fuller approached the topic so directly (as he did in 1959’s The Crimson Kimono and ‘63’s Shock Corridor), few viewers could have misconstrued his intentions. Unfortunately, these few viewers were all members of the NAACP who, for fear of the film’s supposed intentions, spooked Paramount into shelving the film, assuring no one would see it again.
But White Dog, based on the nonfiction story by Romain Gray, is a hard-edged, anti-racist story; one that puts ‘white’ not in the context of color, but of attitude. “He’s taught to kill black people!” shouts the film’s animal expert, Carruthers (Burl Ives).
In the film, co-written by Fuller and Curtis Hanson (who would go on to a prolific career as the director of films like LA Confidential and Wonder Boys), a young actress named Julie Sawyer (Kristy McNichol) takes in a stray German Shepherd after she strikes him with her car, and soon discovers, like Gray and then-wife Jean Seberg, that the dog has been conditioned to attack only dark-skinned individuals.
Much of the film takes place inside an animal training center’s lion’s den, where black dog trainer Keys (Paul Winfield) is determined to “break” the White Dog’s habit, not through punishment (if racism won’t die, how could the symbol?), but reconditioning. Like Keys, the film’s protagonist, Fuller keeps his subject close at hand at all times, coloring the dog in blood, and filming him in slow-motion and constant close-ups, presenting the face of racism in all its viciousness.
A number of black characters are attacked in White Dog, but in no way is the film pro-hate or does it promote a revival of the titular dogs, who were first trained to catch runaway slaves, on command or not. Because of the NAACP’s stranglehold on the studio, White Dog was seldom seen until 1991 when it was included at a retrospective at New York City’s Film Forum. It was here that the film was finally viewed as what it is: an honest, if obvious portrait of American bigotry.
Recollections from Karl Lewis Miller: In these text excerpts from an interview conducted by author Lee Server, Miller, the film’s animal trainer, discusses Fuller’s goals for the dog and his disdain for harming animals, the masterfully-shot attempted rape scene, and the multiple dogs used. Set photographs accompany the text.
Also included is a Photo Gallery (with on-set images taken by still photographer Sidney Baldwin) and a 28-page booklet with essays by Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman (‘Sam Fuller, Unmuzzled’) and New York Press film critic Armond White (Fuller vs. Racism), and an “interview” between Fuller and the White Dog.