White Dog - Themes


White Dog is a "blunt, highly cinematic parable about race relations" that questions whether racism is a curable mental illness or learned behavior, or if it is an untreatable disease. The unnamed white German Shepherd is the metaphor of racism, with his radically contrasting moments of innocent, typical dog behavior when not around black persons, and his snarling viciousness when he sees a target. Paul Winfield's character Keys, who believes he can help the dog unlearn this behavior, represents the view that racism can be unlearned. Keys' attempts to reprogram the dog become a "bold literalization of the race war", and as the film progresses Keys becomes obsessed with the idea that he can cure the dog. Much like Captain Ahab, he declares that if he fails with this dog, he will find another and another until he succeeds. Keys' counterpart, Carruthers, a white trainer, believes the dog is irredeemable and should be killed, representing the view that racism cannot be cured.

The snarling dog, its white fur stained with bright red stage blood, becomes a typically imposing, outscale Fuller image-the embodiment of snarling, irrational and implacable hatred. Typical, too, is the way Fuller emphasizes the radical contrast between the dog in its innocent, unaroused state – big brown eyes staring up at McNichol – and its plunging, salivating attack mode. —Dave Kehr, Chicago Tribune

Scenes showing Kristy McNichol innocently burying her hands in the dog's fur and his normal loving behavior when alone with her provides a stark image of "how hatred can be familiar, reassuringly close". J. Hoberman notes that the film "naturalizes racism in an unnatural way" in the contrasting depictions of white characters horrified by the dog's behavior, and black characters who grimly accept it as a fact of life. The film's ending have been argued to emphasize Fuller's own view that racism is something that is learned, but that once learned is a "poison" that can never truly "be banished from those it infects". But on the other hand, the dog is actually cured of attacking blacks, but not cured of his own hatred since the last thing he does is to, unprovoked, attack a white man. The ending implies therefore that it is hatred (and not racism) that cannot be banished from those it infects.

In the original Romain Gary novel, this was not the story that was told--the dog started to attack white people because a black man embittered by white racism deliberately retrained him to do so.

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