White Dog is a 1982 American drama film, which Samuel Fuller directed from a screenplay he and Curtis Hanson had dramatized, which, in turn, they based on Romain Gary’s 1970 novel of the same name. The film depicts the struggle of a dog trainer named Keys (Paul Winfield), who is black, trying to retrain a stray dog found by a young actress (Kristy McNichol), that is a “white dog”—a dog trained to make vicious attacks upon, and to kill, any black person. Fuller uses the film as a platform to deliver an anti-racist message as it examines the question of whether racism is a treatable problem or an incurable condition.
The film’s theatrical release was suppressed for a week in the United States by Paramount Pictures out of concern over negative press after rumors began circulating that the film was racist. Prior to the date, it was released internationally in France in July 1982. Its first official American home video release came in December 2008 when The Criterion Collection released the original uncut film to DVD.
Critics praised the film’s hard-line look at racism and Fuller’s use of melodrama and metaphors to present his argument, and its somewhat disheartening ending that leaves the impression that while racism is learned, it cannot be cured. Reviewers consistently questioned the film’s lack of wide release in the United States when it was completed and applauded its belated release by Criterion.
White Dog’s roots lie with a 1970 autobiographical novel written by Romain Gary of the same name. The story was purchased for use by Paramount in 1975, with Curtis Hanson selected to write the screenplay and Roman Polanski originally hired to direct.
The film was completed in 1981, but Paramount was hesitant to release the film out of continuing concerns that the film would be misconstrued. Though no one from the organization had viewed the completed film, the NAACP threatened boycotts. In early 1982, the studio finally held a preview screening in Seattle and later, in August, in Denver, with mixed responses. It was finally released in the US at five Detroit theatres on November 12, 1982 for just one week, with no trailer, no poster and no promotion at all. It did no business and was shelved as uncommercial by Paramount. Dumbfounded and hurt by the film’s shelving, Fuller moved to France and never directed another American film.
Later in April 1987, during an interview held in Milan, Fuller stated that Paramount shelved the film also because they feared negative reactions from the KKK.