White Dog

White Dog

Author Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club, Choke) recently did an “Ask me anything” on Reddit. One reader asked him what his biggest source of inspiration is when writing a new novel. Palahniuk responded by saying he looks for the biggest problem in his life that he can’t solve or tolerate, and then comes up with a metaphor to explore it. I was thinking of these words when I watched Samuel Fuller’s White Dog, a feature-length metaphor about racism.

A struggling actress hits a white German Shepard with her car in the middle of the night.  She stops the vehicle and scrambles to take the poor animal to the vet. It survives. The actress keeps the dog as a temporary companion, at least until she can find the real owners of it. What she doesn’t realize is that the animal has been trained to be a “white dog” – an attack dog that targets and viciously mauls anyone with black skin.

The actress is repeatedly told that she should just put the dog down, because there’s nothing else that can be done. It’s be trained to be a monster. Keeping it around will do no good. Except a veteran animal trainer presents a second option: reprogramming the racism out of the dog. The animal trainer is black himself, and knows a thing or two about the damage these “white dogs” can do. He hopes he can reverse what’s been done to the dog, but he’s already tried to do it twice. And both times he failed.

White Dog presents challenging questions about racism. First, “white dogs” have to be trained; they aren’t born that way. Second, once a “white dog” has been trained like this, should they simply be killed? Is rehabilitation pointless, even though it’s not the animal’s fault it was brought up this way? It’s a fascinating question. Especially because the film is actually talking about human beings. A “white dog” is just a metaphor for a racist.

The film doesn’t answer these questions; it leaves it up to the viewer to come to their own conclusions. There’s an interesting line of dialogue early in the film that caught my attention (mostly because it sounds ridiculous at the time). After the struggling actress has almost been raped by a white man, but the “white dog” saved her, the police come to arrest the criminal. At which point one of the officers quips: “Hey! That’s the same rapist I arrested last year!” Yes, that is an actual line of dialogue. However, it strikes at the film’s difficult relationship with rehabilitation. Should those convicted of a vicious crime simply be killed? Why bother attempting to rehabilitate a monster? There is no correct answer.

As a film, White Dog is watchable, but only barely. There’s not a lot of plot (simply ninety minutes of the dog attacking people in between lengthy scenes of trying to “reprogram” it), and the lead actress isn’t believable at all. There’s a scene where she weakly struggles to contact 911 and the overacting is laughable. The film has also not aged well.

Grade: C+

Sidenote: The “original” trainers of the dog show up in a brief scene near the end of the film. I don’t think you’d ever be able to guess what they look like.

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