By David Sterritt, writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
FOR almost 10 years, "White Dog" has been a missing movie. Completed in 1982 by filmmaker Samuel Fuller, it has been shown on cable television in the United States and has played theatrically in other countries, earning praise from audiences and critics. But until its recent debut at Film Forum, an adventurous showcase in lower Manhattan, it has never appeared in an American theater - apparently because its own studio, Paramount Pictures, found it too controversial to release.
Now that one theater is breaking the taboo, others will probably follow, allowing audiences to decide for themselves whether "White Dog" is a racist melodrama or an uncomfortably accurate look at American racial tensions. Meanwhile, the movie's history is worth pondering for what it reveals about Hollywood's attitude toward the subject of race.
The plot of "White Dog," based on a novel by French author Romain Gary, begins when a young woman (Kristy McNichol) accidentally runs over a dog with her car. She nurses him back to health and decides to keep him as a pet, only to discover that he is a so-called white dog - trained by a white racist to attack any black person in sight.
Determined to reverse this evil training, she consults an animal expert (Burl Ives) and then a trainer (Paul Winfield) who happens to be African-American himself. Together they undertake a brave experiment, finding out whether the dog's racial fear and hatred can be replaced by a new spirit of trust and cooperation.
One feisty canine is hardly the same as all American society, of course, so we are obviously meant to see "White Dog" as a symbolic film, delivering a cautionary message about the destructive effect of racism on whatever it touches.
Underlining this, the dialogue takes every opportunity to condemn racism as stupid, vicious, and just plain sick.
Given this fact, it is most peculiar that "White Dog" has been kept out of American theaters for the past decade, whether because it seemed a risky "sell" in the early '80s or because of threatened protest from a wary portion of the black community, both of which have been reported as causes for the film's nonrelease when it was first completed. …