Addressing racism is not at all foreign territory for the film industry, especially not in the present day, where film has been used to spread awareness towards the racism all around the world, and to present the history of some parts of society. It is of course obvious how any film addressing racism needs to be very careful to tell the story in a way that doesn’t alienate audiences – they are, after all, the ones who are showing an interest in the message the film is portraying, but also need to tell the honest truth about the subject matter. Racism is one of those terrible crimes against humanity that always exists, and it is never an easy pill to swallow when presented with the truth, and when some films do show the extent of the racism, it can be quite disturbing. One film that brought a lot to the table in terms of addressing racism was White Dog, a film that sadly only thrives on its controversy instead of its message.
The story is a simple, but very unique one – Kristy McNichol plays Julie Sawyer, a young, struggling actress who adopts a white German Shepard who she accidentally injured with her car. The dog of course is loving and protects her from an intruder. It is only later on that we realize that the dog is a “white dog” – a dog trained to viciously attack black people. The logical thing to do would be to have the dog put down – after all, you can’t teach an old dogs new tricks, especially when that dog is instilled with a vicious temperament to kill. Yet Julie doesn’t lose hope, and enlists the help of Keys (Paul Winfield) a dedicated animal trainer who sees the dog as an experiment to see if he can successfully remove the hatred instilled into the dog.
White Dog is a very interesting study on racism. Something I found interesting about the film was how racism as a concept was actually given a physical body in the form of the dog, which goes unnamed throughout the film. The dog isn’t simply a dog – it is the pure embodiment of racism – racist white people training their dogs to attack someone not because of anything other than their skin color. The dog becomes one of the most terrifying characters in cinema history, mainly because a lot of the time, we see this adorable, beautiful creature running around and playing, when then when he goes into attack mode, it is dreadfully scary. The scene where the dog attacks a man in the church, dragging him along was one of the most terrifying and brutally violent moments in cinema history. A lot has been made about White Dog, with many people calling it racist, and a potential masterpiece has been soiled with accusations of racist tendencies in the filmmaking. Unfortunately, that has caused the film to become known for its reputation instead of its merits as a brilliant film. I do understand that in 1982, the world had not yet reached its progressive stance that it has now, yet still even then, calling a film that takes a look at how racists train innocent animals to have inherent feelings of hatred towards certain people, and the struggle of three people to correct it, cannot at all be interpreted as racist in any form. The message of White Dog does not at all put racism into a positive light, and doesn’t once even try to endorse it. It makes a bold and noble statement, and stands by it, and unfortunately, narrow-minded criticisms caused it to be sullied in reputation.
Paul Winfield was a great actor, and extraordinarily underrated. Playing Keys, a wise and intelligent animal trainer, he takes the titular dog under his wing and attempts to correct him of his behavior. Keys is a very likable character, and his tenacity to correct the dog is one of the most interesting things about the film. Kristy McNichol is gleefully ignorant at the beginning of the film, and builds a relationship with the dog and eventually starts to turn on it herself, the same adorable puppy she brought home is now a savage beast. Of course, the true star of this film has to be the titular dog – which was played by five different identical dogs. Training those dogs was no doubt a huge challenge, and it is odd how one of the most terrifying film characters ever is played by a dog.
White Dog is an absolutely wonderful film – it has such a serious social message behind it, and a very positive one at that. It is absolutely genius filmmaking – from the story to the underlying message to the actual filmmaking, it was captivating, compelling drama that we very rarely seen. I wish this film wasn’t so negatively received as a pro-racism film like it was when it was initially released, because it couldn’t be further from that – it is a brilliant piece of social commentary, and one of the most intense films I’ve ever seen. Truly a masterpiece.