What has four legs and one arm?.... a pit bull (or so the old joke goes). In American Pit Bull, Killer Canine or Family Friend, director Marilyn Braverman tries to dispel that myth and others about this much maligned dog breed. Most of the film seems to parallel the 2006 New Yorker article “Troublemakers: What pit bulls can teach us about profiling” by Malcolm Gladwell.
American Pit Bull tells us that pit bulls are the demon dog du jour and that the breed most likely to bite you is the chihuahua. Of course the difference between a chihuahua bite and the bite of a pit bull is considerable. When the pit bull bites you, you stay bitten.
The movie tells us a little about dog fighting (the main charge against the breed). For example, one thing that is not tolerated in a fighting dog is for it to bite people. Pit bulls are not people-aggressive, but they don’t play well with other dogs; breeders call them “bully dogs”: dogs that naturally dominate other dogs. Around people, they are all sweetness and light; unless, as the film stresses, they have been trained to be aggressive to people.
Also discussed is “breed specific legislation” and the question of whether it reduces the number of dog-on-human attacks. This is also the main focus in the New Yorker article. Both the film and the article suggest that it doesn’t work, and that it only serves to stigmatize the breed. Bad dogs, they agree, are made, not born.
A New Breed
American Pit Bull breaks into new territory when it looks at the fad in South Central Los Angeles for breeding big-headed “monster” dogs. All dog breeds are in some way someone’s idea of what an ideal dog should be. They’ve been customized like any car or motorcycle. In South Central, it’s low riders and bad-ass ugly dogs. “That dog is so bad, he could scare the chrome off of a bumper” (to mix the two analogs). Some of the dogs we see appear in informal dog shows and are really impressive mutts.
The South Central variety of pit bull has been bred outside of the officially sanctioned dog breeding world. The word “sanctioned” here raises the question of who gets to call a dog a “purebred.” It is suggested that the monster bully dogs are not recognized for reasons of class and race of their owners. Official kennel clubs are pretty genteel organizations and the folks down in South Central are definitely not part of the country club set. Who do they think they are developing their own dog breeds? This ignores the fact that many dog breeds, and certainly the working and hunting dogs, were developed outside the confines of the kennel club culture. These were dogs that were bred to be bigger or run faster or have the best nose for whatever it was their owners wanted. This is no different than creating a dog that intimidates by looks alone. And some of these monster bully dogs are actually trained to be aggressive towards people. Thus the charge against the pit bull comes full circle and is made true.
We also come back to the initial charge of pit bulls being bred to be fighting dogs. The recent case of NFL star quarterback Michael Vick closes that circle, being both a class/race issue and one of using pit bulls for what they were bred to do. American Pit Bull was shot too early for that case to be mentioned but it’s certainly timely now.
Had American Pit Bull been about only the local phenomenon of monster bully-dogs, it might have packed a bigger punch. As it is, it tries to go down three separate paths at the same time. One is a refutation of pit bulls’ bad press; another is the confirmation that when bred to be big, ugly and trained to harass people, they really are a menace; and thirdly that what makes the difference is how the dogs are trained and managed.
Any one of these ideas could have been the subject of a documentary instead of a mere sidetrack. So unfortunately, the question “killer canine or family friend?” remains unanswered.
And one last note (not covered in the film), what do you get when you cross a pit bull with a collie? A dog that, after it tears your leg off, goes for help.
There is extra footage that, if you liked the film, you’ll want to see. There is the humorous and ironic “Pitbull Attack,” but I think best of all is the “Interview with Hermine.” “Pitbull on a Bike” has as mixed message, but is still memorable.
Picture and Sound
American Pit Bull has good production value all the way around.
How To Use This DVD
If you are “dog people” you’ll love this DVD. If not, there are still some interesting things to see, but you may come away as ambivalent about pit bulls as you were coming to the film.