Monday, December 19, 2011

White Dog Black Heart

The final image of Samuel Fuller's White Dog fades from color to black-and-white, and from black-and-white to a negative. Nothing has changed--it's only been inverted.

White Dog is a critique not only of racism, but of the ways in which we address it--Fuller's final film acts as a commentary not only on the blacks and whites of skin color, but on black-and-white thinking. Hatred is instilled in individuals and instilled in the culture collectively by repeated abuse. Like the dog, we're either indoctrinated, pummeled into ideological submission, or else we're simply born into prejudice, heirs to the sins of the fathers--the film's take on racism recalls a statement from one of Fuller's earlier films, Shock Corridor, in which racism is described as a "disease carried to those yet unborn." And, like the dog, this disease may be incurable. In the film's climax, the dog learns to accept Keys' black skin, only to attack the white Carruthers immediately thereafter. When hate has been instilled, legislation can only go so far--we can't seem to find a cure, the best we can do is to switch sides. We need an enemy. Nothing is changed--only inverted.

In the book on which it's based, the white dog is counter-programmed by Keys, a black Muslim, to attack white people--a blatant metaphor for the Black Panthers' response to civil rights: to fight violence with more violence, to take the oppressor's tools and use them against him. But Fuller's adaptation complicates the conversation, addressing problems that may be more lingering and less easily negotiable. Here Keys isn't seeking revenge, he is sincerely, even obsessively, attempting to cure the dog of its aggression altogether--only to find out after several attacks and at least one death that the dog is incurable. Once it's been instilled, cultural violence cannot be eradicated, only displaced. Only inverted. Nothing changed.

In White Dog, those "yet unborn" who inherit the disease are embodied by two innocents, the beaming granddaughters, their heads held in unnatural headlock by an ostensibly harmless, apparently affectionate, chocolate-bearing grandpa: the proud racist who trained the dog to be a killer. When Julie finds him standing at her gate, she yells, she swears, she lashes out--and, while her anger may be justified, her response is just more of the same. Abuse. Aggression. Hatred begetting hatred.

White Dog isn't merely targeting the reactionary violence of the Black Panthers--Fuller's film is an indictment of an inherently violent cultural mindset, a tradition of inflammatory rhetoric, a society that seems to always needs someone to attack. We need enemies, and the most we ever seem to do is to give them different faces.

Invert the image. Swap allegiance.

Change nothing.

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