I’m an unashamed fan of big, clumsy metaphors and allegories, and you can’t really get a more obvious one than this, certainly not when it comes to postmodern examinations of 20th century racial tension. The premise of this film is completely brilliant (even if the execution is far from perfect) – a young Hollywood actress accidentally runs over a beautiful white German Shepherd, and when no owner comes forward she adopts it as her own. While its protective nature over her is at first endearing, she quickly realises that the dog has been trained since birth to attack black people, and is to all intents and purposes a “racist dog”. Where it gets really interesting is when she then takes the dog to a black animal trainer who is determined to “cure” it, and suddenly the subtext becomes text, and we’re looking at an open discussion, possibly the only of its kind in American cinema at the time, as to whether racism is a treatable condition or an incurable problem.

The studio when it was made (1982) got cold feet and buried the film, rendering it a commercial flop (leading the director to effectively quit the business), worried that it might be perceived as racist – an absurd suggestion, given that it has a defiantly anti-racist message, albeit delivered with a certain 70’s (it somehow feels like it was made a decade earlier) clumsiness. There’s a slight clunky element to it all – the editing and sound mixing is of a low quality, the human characters (apart from the black trainer) seem to hinge on stilted melodrama and there is a brief attempted rape scene that is downright embarrassing. But there is so much astonishing stuff to appreciate, these flaws can be overlooked.

There is so much to mine in this film, it should be a staple for film studies classes everywhere. In many ways, it echoes Herman Melville’s account of the pursuit of another albino animal, and shares its rich seam of metaphor. The reaction of people to the dog is fascinating – while white liberals are shocked and horrified, the black characters seem to grimly accept its hatred as a part of daily life. Ultimately though, maybe the reason this was ignored in the US (and still is) is due to its downbeat ending. If it has anything approaching a conclusion, it’s that racism, while definitely learned, cannot be unlearned. And too many people in America still don’t want to think about that possibility.

WHITE DOG
Big, fat, brilliant allegories9
Clumsy, clunky narrative and melodramatic storytelling4
A really ill-judged rape scene3
The tension in one shot created by the composition of having a black child and the racist dog in the same frame10
Saying more about race in America than 99% of every other film ever made10
Bechdel Test Passes
  • Features more than one named female character
  • The female characters talk to each other
Bechdel Test Failures
  • I'm pretty sure the only conversations between two women are about the dog... which is male.
7Overall Score

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