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"White dogs" are the source of the mythical hellhound sung about by bluesmen like Robert Johnson.

Some were said to be especially bred for size, viciousness, and tracking ability. These dogs

could take down a black man and tear him to pieces with little or no effort.



White Dog

Of Hellhounds and Racism

A Film Review by Amin Sharif


I got to keep movin’

blues fallin’ down like hail

blues fallin’ down lile hail . . .

And the days keep worryin’ me,

there’s a hellhound on my trail . . .

                                Robert Johnson, “Hellhound on My Trail”


When Attorney General Eric Holder characterized the United States as a “nation of cowards when it comes to race,” he might well have been referring to Paramount Studio and the Beverly Hills-Hollywood branch of the NAACP in 1981. It was in that year that Paramount Studios decided at the behest of the NAACP and other forces to shelve Director Sam Fuller’s controversial film White Dog. Now, almost three decades later, the film has been released to the general public on DVD as part of the Criterion Collection of “important classic and contemporary films.”

Fuller’s White Dog is based on an equally controversial nonfiction work by Romain Gary in which he and his wife, actress Jean Seberg, find “a stray German shepherd that, they soon discover, has been trained to attack black people on sight.” In Gary’s book, the couple decided to attempt to have the dog retrained and as recorded in J. Hoberman’s critique of both the film and book—Sam Fuller, Unmuzzled—they turn the dog over to a Black Muslim trainer for the task. In what can only be called literary irony, the Black Muslim trainer succeeds in retraining the dog. The only problem is that now the dog has been trained to attack whites—not blacks—on sight.

Both as a literary work and film, White Dog is concerned with the effects of racism as an integral part of American society. The question that White Dog posits is whether the racist elements within American society can be “retrained” or must they be annihilated by any and all means necessary. In 1981, when White Dog was made this was not a theoretical question. For by then, white flight from America’s urban centers was a fact. And right wing politicians were calling for a white moral majority to give them a mandate to reverse the gains made by blacks and other minorities during the Civil Rights era.

Perhaps sensing this retreat from a commitment to Civil Rights and progressive politics, Sam Fuller may have thought that by making White Dog that he would jolt the public to once again consider the question of racism in America. That he was certainly familiar with the potency of the subject matter is attested to by the fact that he was made aware of white dog phenomenon as far back as the 1930s when he covered the Ku Klux Klan for the New York Evening Graphic. But by the time White Dog even the vivid black and white images of (white) dogs attacking black men, women and children during civil rights demonstrations had receded from America’s consciousness. So from the very beginning, Fuller’s White Dog  had an uphill battle.

Despite the obstacles placed in the path of film, Fuller somehow found a way to bring a relevant and stark vision of modern racism to the American movie screen. This is not to say that the film is not without its flaws. The film’s leading actress Kristy McNichol was just graduating to adult projects when White Dog was filmed and appears a bit inexperienced for the role. There are veteran actors Paul Winfield and Burl Ives who have significant roles in the film. And they play their roles well. But there is an unevenness that exists in the film that can not be overlooked. Yet Fuller’s over all vision and his ability to transverse the difficult subject of contemporary racism raises the film far above these minor flaws. Ultimately what emerges is a film that is well worth viewing particularly for younger Americans who may be unfamiliar with the mythological and historical material from which the film is drawn.

Much of the success of the film is accomplished by Fuller’s reworking Gary’s novel. His film opens with Julie Sawyer, a young actress played by McNichol, colliding with a beautiful white German shepherd while driving on an isolated country road. Sawyer rushes the dog to an animal hospital where she finds that she must pay for its treatment. Reluctant to take responsibility for the animal, Sawyer only concedes to care for the dog after being told that it might end up in the city pound if it should go unclaimed by its owner. Soon, a bond of love is established between Sawyer and the dog. And all seems well.

It is not until the dog pads into a small town not far from Sawyer’s isolated home after chasing a rabbit that we get our first indications of how dangerous a “white dog” can be. For as soon as the animal spies a black truck driver, it launches an attack upon the unsuspecting black man. It is days before the dog returns to Sawyer’s home. And in the interim, we have no idea how many black people may have been attacked by the dog—or if it has attacked anyone at all. The only suggestion we have of the animal’s vicious nature is its blood stained coat which is dutifully washed clean by Sawyer.

The next attack comes when Sawyer and a black actress friend are filming a commercial at a studio. It is then that the dog breaks the leash that holds him fast to a pole and leaps upon the back of the actress inflicting serious injuries that require hospitalization. Sawyer is at once stunned and perplexed by the behavior of her loving pet. It is only when she is told by her boyfriend that her pet is an “attack dog” trained to seek out black victims does Sawyer gain an inkling of the malevolent force that she has brought into her own house. Sawyer’s boyfriend urges her to take the dog to the pound and have it euthanized. But Sawyer believes that she can save her pet, that it can be trained to unlearn its function as a “white dog.”

It is at this point in the film that Sawyer embarks on a mission to find a kind of latter day dog whisperer—a person who can cut out the animal’s malevolent tendency to attack black people. She finds such a trainer in the person of Keys played by Paul Winfield. Sawyer is introduced to Keys through Carruthers, played by the noted folksinger Burl Ives. Carruthers is the owner of Noah’s Ark which is part refuge and part training center for animals used in commercials and films. Though Carrauthers is skeptical that Sawyer’s pet can be retrained, Keys who is an anthropologist believes that white dogs can indeed be salvaged. In fact, the retraining of white dogs has been Keys’ personal mission for years—though all his efforts to date have failed.

It is Keys who relates the origin and history of the white dog to Sawyer. “They are taken as pups,” he tells her, “and beaten by black slaves or winos and drug addicts until they come to see black skin as their enemy.” Keys words are an understatement if the full truth be known. "White dogs" are the source of the mythical hellhound sung about by bluesmen like Robert Johnson. Some were said to be especially bred for size, viciousness, and tracking ability. These dogs could take down a black man and tear him to pieces with little or no effort. They were the scourge of every runaway slave and every black man attempting to escape a lynch mob. It is only now when African Americans are no longer hemmed in by slavery and Jim Crow segregation that the white dog no longer haunts their dreams.    

Keys immediately finds out that the retraining of Sawyer’s pet is a daunting test. This is the strongest, most vicious animal that he has ever worked with. He is even given to doubt his mission when the white dog escapes the center, chases a black man into a church, and mauls him to death. When Sawyer finds out about the murder, she has finally had enough. She commands Keys to shoot the dog but Keys refuses to do so. He instead continues to retrain the animal and is rewarded when the dog takes food from his own black hand.  To confirm that his retraining has taken hold, Keys brings in a black friend to approach the dog and finds that the animal seems to have overcome its desire to attack black people altogether. And a once doubting Carruthers having personally observed a change in the animal’s behavior is the first to concede that Keys may have indeed succeeded in his lifelong mission to retrain white dogs. But despite Carruther’s pronouncements, Keys is far less certain of his success.

Eventually, Sawyer is called to retrieve her reformed pet from the center. But before Sawyer can leave to pick up the animal, she is confronted by the true owners of the white dog. In a masterful stroke of filmmaking, Fuller reveals that the owner of the white dog is not a member of the Klan or a right wing fanatic. He depicts the owner as an affable middle aged white man accompanied by his two adorable grandchildren.

And it is at this point that Fuller who has now warmed to his task begins to raise doubts about the status of the white dog in the minds of the viewer. For when Sawyer’s dog approaches her at the center, there is a moment when it appears to be preparing to attack her. But at the last second our view of the animal changes and the dog seems to have reverted to being her docile pet once more. Perhaps suspecting that Sawyer’s dog has not truly changed its malevolent behavior, Keys trains a gun upon the animal during its reunion with its master. Keys’ suspicion would prove prophetic. For when Sawyer bends down to embrace her pet, the animal catches a glimpse of Carruthers, leaps from her embrace and mauls the man to death. Keys has no alternative but to shoot the white dog in an unsuccessful effort to save his friend’s life. It is here that the film ends leaving the viewer to ponder its many metaphors and much praised symbolism.

In an excellent companion pamphlet that comes with the DVD of the film, Armond White in an essay entitled “Fuller v. Racism” states that “no movie is ahead of its time, just ahead of the cultural gatekeepers.” That White Dog could be shelved simply because it brought into question the way that race in America was addressed was and continues to be an unforgivable act. Though White seems to believe that the NAACP and Paramount Studios were being practical in their actions concerning the film, others can not help but find a kind of obtuse view of artistic expression on their part. Was Fuller’s film worthy of being seen by the general public in 1981? Of course, it was. How could the NAACP object to any honest dialogue concerning race especially at a time when black and white citizens were questioning (and still question) the relevance of the organization in the lives of everyday black men and women?

Setting all this aside, White Dog is and continues to be an important film that should be seen by every American regardless of race. I advise that parents bring their children into the room while viewing the film—although the film is certainly not fare for children under twelve—and discuss its contents with them. College students and community activists should develop discussion groups around the film. It is only when American society is willing to view race from all sides, confronting its contradictory and paradoxical character that it will finally have the courage to do away with its malevolent effects. Buy White Dog, for it is film well worth having.

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Other Commentary

Critics praised the film's hard line look at racism and Fuller's use of melodrama and metaphors to present his argument, and its somewhat disheartening ending that leaves the impression that while racism is learned, it can not be cured. Reviewers consistently questioned the film's lack of wide release in the United States when it was completed and applauded its belated release by Criterion. Wikipedia

Samuel Fuller’s throat-grabbing exposé on American racism was misunderstood and withheld from release when it was made in the early eighties; today, the notorious film is lauded for its daring metaphor and gripping pulp filmmaking. Kristy McNichol stars as a young actress who adopts a lost German shepherd, only to discover through a series of horrifying incidents that the dog has been trained to attack black people, and Paul Winfield plays the animal trainer who tries to cure him. A snarling, uncompromising vision, White Dog is a tragic portrait of the evil done by that most corruptible of animals: the human being. Criterion

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1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

By Charles C. Mann

I’m a big fan of Charles Mann’s previous book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, in which he provides a sweeping and provocative examination of North and South America prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus. It’s exhaustively researched but so wonderfully written that it’s anything but exhausting to read. With his follow-up, 1493, Mann has taken it to a new, truly global level. Building on the groundbreaking work of Alfred Crosby (author of The Columbian Exchange and, I’m proud to say, a fellow Nantucketer), Mann has written nothing less than the story of our world: how a planet of what were once several autonomous continents is quickly becoming a single, “globalized” entity.

Mann not only talked to countless scientists and researchers; he visited the places he writes about, and as a consequence, the book has a marvelously wide-ranging yet personal feel as we follow Mann from one far-flung corner of the world to the next. And always, the prose is masterful. In telling the improbable story of how Spanish and Chinese cultures collided in the Philippines in the sixteenth century, he takes us to the island of Mindoro whose “southern coast consists of a number of small bays, one next to another like tooth marks in an apple.” We learn how the spread of malaria, the potato, tobacco, guano, rubber plants, and sugar cane have disrupted and convulsed the planet and will continue to do so until we are finally living on one integrated or at least close-to-integrated Earth. Whether or not the human instigators of all this remarkable change will survive the process they helped to initiate more than five hundred years ago remains, Mann suggests in this monumental and revelatory book, an open question.

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The Heart of Whiteness

By Robert Jensen

The first, and perhaps most crucial, fear is that of facing the fact that some of what we white people have is unearned. It's a truism that we don't really make it on our own; we all have plenty of help to achieve whatever we achieve. That means that some of what we have is the product of the work of others, distributed unevenly across society, over which we may have little or no control individually. No matter how hard we work or how smart we are, we all know — when we are honest with ourselves — that we did not get where we are by merit alone. And many white people are afraid of that fact. A second fear is crasser: White people's fear of losing what we have — literally the fear of losing things we own if at some point the economic, political, and social systems in which we live become more just and equitable.Robert Jensen  

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Super Rich: A Guide to Having it All

By Russell Simmons

Russell Simmons knows firsthand that wealth is rooted in much more than the stock  market. True wealth has more to do with what's in your heart than what's in your wallet. Using this knowledge, Simmons became one of America's shrewdest entrepreneurs, achieving a level of success that most investors only dream about. No matter how much material gain he accumulated, he never stopped lending a hand to those less fortunate. In Super Rich, Simmons uses his rare blend of spiritual savvy and street-smart wisdom to offer a new definition of wealth-and share timeless principles for developing an unshakable sense of self that can weather any financial storm. As Simmons says, "Happy can make you money, but money can't make you happy."

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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posted 10 April 2009




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