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Homicide: Which Side Are You On?

By John Denvir, University of San Francisco School of Law (October, 1998)

[Editor’s note: The following commentary reveals some plot details.   Readers who have not seen the film may want to bookmark this site and return to read this commentary after they have seen the film.]

"Law," understood in any sense beyond coercion, presupposes community. We feel morally required to obey the laws of our community while the threat of sanctions is the only motivation for obeying laws promulgated by a government we don’t consider our own. This, however, brings up the question of what constitutes "community," in a pluralistic society like our own–rife with racial and ethnic tension. David Mamet addresses exactly this question in his haunting mystery Homicide.

Bobby Gold is a good man and good cop, but he’s finally undone because he can’t figure out which tribe he belongs to. Like almost all of us in modern America, he has many tribes to choose from. Is he a peace officer constrained by the law of the State or a member of a close-knit group of homicide detectives linked by mutual loyalty or is he is Jew with duties to remember and a responsibility to repay the indecencies committed against Jews throughout Western history?

At the beginning of the film, Gold clearly sees the homicide detectives as his true community, especially because of his close friendship with his Irish-American partner Tim Sullivan. But chance events start to intervene. On his way to the stakeout of a murder suspect, Gold stops to answer an "officer in distress" signal from a rookie officer. He solves the problem only to get "caught" with the case. It involves the murder of an elderly Jewish woman in a candy store in an African-American ghetto. Even though the woman’s death seems clearly the result of an armed robbery gone wrong, the woman’s family uses their political clout to insist that Gold handle the case. They want him because he’s Jewish.

He’s reluctant, but slowly gets involved in the family’s drama. It appears that they had been involved in gunrunning during the birth of the State of Israel and still may be involved in illegal activities fueled by Jewish nationalism. They taunt Gold about how he has turned his back on his heritage. One asks him tellingly, "don’t you belong anywhere?"

The question strikes home because Gold has discovered that no matter how good a cop he is, he’ll always be a "Jew" down at the station house. Mamet rams this home when an altercation with an African-American superior results in Gold being on the receiving end of an antisemitic epithet. Even his success with his colleagues seems to stem from his reputation as a "station house lawyer" and "hostage negotiator," qualities his friends link with his Jewishness. Twenty citations for valor can’t free him from their stereotypical views. When he approaches his partner with his misgivings, even Sullivan impatiently tells him to stop all the "Jew" stuff and get back to work. Gold starts to think that maybe the Jews are the only community which will ever really accept him for himself.

In order to win the Jewish group’s respect, Gold personally takes part in the firebombing of the store of the publisher of anti-Semitic tracts. To his horror, Gold soon discovers that the group has induced him to commit a criminal act for the sole purpose of having evidence with which to blackmail him in the future. He suddenly realizes that they may be Jews, but they certainly are not friends. Worse yet, he realizes that the bombing has caused him to forget that he had promised Sullivan to help him at a showdown with the cop killer they were pursuing. He races to the scene only to discover that he’s too late; Sullivan is down, mortally wounded. Gold discovers his search for acceptance as a Jew has resulted in facilitating his friend’s death. Tellingly, Sullivan’s last words to Gold are about all the great times they shared, with no mention of the missed date. At the end of the film, Gold is completely isolated, cut off from the Jewish activists and vulnerable to their blackmail, and boycotted by his colleagues at homicide who blame him for Sullivan’s death.

Richard Sherwin, in his excellent essay on the movie in my Legal Reelism: Movies as Legal Texts (U. Ill. Press 1997), accepts Mamet’s own view that the movie has no "moral." It’s just a tale of the fates working out their caprices. But I think there is a moral, an important one for all of us who live in a multi-cultural society. Friendship is the personal face of community; and both are very fragile organisms which have to be continually nurtured to flower. Gold belonged to a community, at least two communities. First, he was a police detective with a duty to uphold, not to break that community’s laws. He also was a member of a more close–knit community with his colleagues on the homicide squad, especially Sullivan. This doesn’t mean that his fellow officers could stop themselves from seeing him through the lens of ethnicity any more than he could see them as something other than Irish, Italian, or African–American. It’s always painful to be the victim of stereotype, but it’s also inevitable in a mass society like America. Here at least the stereotypes were not hateful; his colleagues thought Gold was smart and a "good talker," and he was. Gold’s tragedy was to ignore this flawed but real community in favor of the fantasy of a mystical nationalism.

When we see white and black citizens perceive completely different versions of the truth as in the O.J. Simpson case, or when police officers like Vanetter cavalierly ignore the Fourth Amendment, or when other police officers like Fuhrman engage in vicious racist rhetoric, we see how important it is that we realize that our constructed communities are not only fragile but irreplaceable. We see the alternative in places like Belfast and Sarajevo.

John DenvirJohn Denvir, who teaches constitutional law at USF Law School, is editor of Legal Reelism: Movies as Legal Texts, available at local bookstores or through


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