Joe Mantegna plays Bobby Gold, a homicide detective who is Jewish, but in - what seems like -that very strictly non-practicing way. By chance, he is assigned to the murder case of a white Jewish shop owner in a predominantly black part of the city. At first, Bobby treats the investigation like it's a bit of a chore. He has his sympathies for the loss of life, of course, but when the shop keeper's family lays forth the notion that politics and/or hate were motives in the killing, Bobby shrugs it off as quickly as he can roll his eyes and jerk his knee. But slowly, as that small specter of ethnic identity awakens inside him (simply by being near the customs, history, and elements of his heritage), Bobby lets it become the guiding force in his research. There is a burgeoning sense of cultural allegiance now driving the operational dirt digging. Emotion has trumped logic.
None of the transformations taking place in Bobby are, for a second, meant to imply that the fears and concerns of Homicide's Jewish characters are unwarranted. Not at all. Clearly, there are real forces of hatred and tension present in the city as witnessed in the backroom of the previously mentioned toy train shop (Mamet wonderfully contrasts shots of Mantegna reacting to the innocence of tiny toys with that of the rage in neo-Nazi flags and fliers) and in the off-handed comments of policemen and members of the community. However, the issue remains that Bobby has let the ideas of what he wants to find, how he wants to see it, and who he wants to blame create a tunnel vision in his brain. For a man who leads the life of a lonely homicide detective, a new sense of belonging and identifying must feel invigorating.
It is with this new sense-of-self burning inside of him that Bobby lets the word "nig*er" fly from his lips during a police raid. The slur comes out not because Bobby is a racist, but because his chest has been inflated by the gauntlet of cultural branding he just recently emerged from. His behavior is a sociological phenomenon, much in the same way a black council member calls Bobby a "ki*e" earlier in the film following a heated exchange over a racially sensitive matter. Is the council member a racist? Doubtful. He too is reacting in an emotional setting, with a hurried heartbeat, and a duty of cultural preservation on his mind. But what's brilliant about Homicide is the way it never plays these outbursts as signs of a greater hidden division. In fact, made in 1991, Homicide is a film made by a man who seems to have accepted the reality of a post-racial society. Mamet is simply interested in the natural wonders of tribal identification, something that will forever exist.
By the way, I've just skimmed the surface of what goes on in this film. Homicide begs repeated viewings. There's much to dissect here, and it sort of feels like David Mamet's masterpiece.