The Patty Jenkins-produced TNT mini-series I Am the Night starring Chris Pine, which concluded its run this week, is an interesting experiment that doesn’t quite come together. It endeavors to take two real-life events that were somewhat connected and weave them together using a fictional character (Pine’s Jay Singletary) to create one story. Aside from some fantastic set design, a terrifically manic performance from Pine, the break-out performance of India Eisley, and some solid directing (from Jenkins, as well as the phenomenal Carl Franklin), I Am the Night is ultimately failed by its writing, which tries to cram too much into one story, which mostly collapses in on itself.
The real-life facts are these: George Hodel was a Los Angeles doctor credibly suspected of being The Black Dahlia killer, aka, the murderer of Elizabeth Short in 1947 and several others victims in that time period. Separately, in 1950, Hodel was acquitted of raping his daughter, Tamar, after discrediting her during the trial. (During the trial, Tamar also suggested that her father was the Black Dahlia killer). In 1950, after the trial, Hodel left the country and moved to the Philippines, where he remained until 1990.
Meanwhile, two years after the trial, Hodel’s daughter, Tamar, age 16, had her own daughter, Fauna. She gave Fauna up to adoption to a black woman, Jimmie Lee (who struggled with alcoholism), claiming that Fauna’s father was black.
That’s what’s true about I Am the Night, and the shell from which creator and writer Sam Sheridan worked. Most of the rest of I Am the Night is fiction: Fauna didn’t go searching for her mother in 1965 (she wouldn’t find her mother until the 1970s); she did not encounter George Hodel in Los Angeles; Hodel did not stab and nearly kill Jimmie Lee; Fauna was not the incestuous daughter of George Hodel; and Jay Singletary never existed, although some of what Singletary accuses Hodel of — performing illegal abortions, conspiring with the police — is true. And because none of that actually happened, the Watts riots obviously couldn’t have provided the backdrop to this story.
Ultimately, that’s part of why I Am the Night fails, because Sheridan could only take so many liberties. We know that George Hodel was never convicted for Elizabeth Short’s murder (despite ample evidence, and even though he returned to the United States in 1990 to live out the last decade of his life), and therefore, we know how I Am the Night will have to end: Hodel will not be killed or convicted.
Ultimately, that’s what makes I Am the Night feel like an interesting but ultimately fruitless thought experiment. What if Fauna Hodel decided to track down her mother in 1965? What if George Hodel briefly returned from the Philippines at that exact time? What if the real reason Tamar gave Fauna up for adoption was because she was the product of her father’s rape? And what if George Hodel decided to replicate the Black Dahlia murder on his granddaughter? And what if Fauna — who believed herself to be mixed-race — conducted her search against the backdrop of the rising racial tensions that led to the Watts riots, depicted in the finale basically as smoke in the background? And what if a reporter had his career ruined in 1949 by trying to suggest that Hodel was the Black Dahlia killer, but had a chance to redeem himself and prove it to be true in 1965 with the aid of Hodel’s daughter/granddaughter?
Unfortunately, because we know so much of this is untrue, it sucks the air out of the series, and the tension slacks. Invariably, it even falls prey to a lot of thriller tropes on its way to a fairly unsatisfactory conclusion: Trapped in Hodel’s mansion, Fauna saves her own damn self from him just as Jay arrives to save her. Jay wants to kill George, but George has already escaped and returned to the Philippines. Jay — who worked out a deal with an LAPD detective to falsely take the rap for another murder for which Hodel is suspected (the fictional Janice Brewster) in exchange for his release — escapes in the chaos of the Watts riots and relocates to Hawaii, which is actually where Tamar relocated to in real life.
Ultimately, it limps towards its conclusion. Honestly, it’s been hobbling since the pilot episode, which told a far more interesting story about a teenage girl, who believed herself to be mixed race, trying to fit in among her black friends during a time when being seen kissing her black boyfriend could get him killed. That episode rings true because it is true. I Am the Night falters, however, when it tries to inject a Black Dahlia thriller into a story about a teenage girl struggling with identity issues. The show reaches its hand too deep into the cookie jar, and ultimately only comes out with a handful of crumbs.
Header Image Source: TNT