I Am The Night review: Chris Pine series revisits a true story set amid Hollywood’s Black Dahlia murder
I Am The Night might not rank as one of the best true crime series of all time, but it’s certainly a very good, gripping addition to a true crime aficionado's weekly TV viewing.
Rare indeed would be the true crime enthusiast who hasn’t heard of the Black Dahlia murder case. In 1947 Los Angeles, Elizabeth Short was a 22-year-old up-and-comer hoping to make a name for herself in Hollywood, when she was brutally murdered (her body was cut in half and mutilated with surgical precision). A combination of factors — the particularly graphic and gruesome nature of the crime, the first of its type post-World War II, and that the murder remains unsolved to this day — have made the Black Dahlia case among the most infamous in American history (the name 'Black Dahlia' has no particular significance, newspapers back then were just in the habit of giving nicknames to such sordid crimes, and apparently Short liked to wear black).
Set very delicately amidst this disturbing backdrop is the story of a woman named Fauna Hodel, whose grandfather George Hodel might have been the Black Dahlia killer. Hodel might also have been Fauna’s father in addition to her grandfather; he is believed to have raped and impregnated his teenage daughter Tamar (Fauna’s mother). Bringing this true story to the screen is I Am The Night — Patty Jenkins’ six-part noir thriller/drama starring Chris Pine — in a somewhat loosely-based adaptation of Fauna’s memoir One Day She'll Darken: The Mysterious Beginnings of Fauna Hodel.
The story behind Fauna Hodel’s memoir is as interesting as it is preposterous — possibly conceived out of an incestuous rape, Fauna was given up for adoption to an African-American couple (Jimmie Lee and her partner Reverend Chris Greenwade) in Nevada. She grew up as “Pat” and believed she was biracial. Her fair skin and light eyes earned her suspicious looks from neighbours and incessant taunting at school. Unaware of her real background or her connection to actual events in history, Fauna’s life was spent questioning her identity, coming to terms with being adopted, and then being sucked into some of the most sinister set of events to ever occur in American history. George Hodel, Fauna’s grandfather, was a very prominent physician in Los Angeles, and a famous socialite. He was considered to be a genius by many, and in 1947 was a prime suspect in the Black Dahlia murder case, although he was never formally charged with the crime.
George Hodel’s medical background fit with the way Short’s body was found (cleanly cut); in a 1949 trial for incestuous sexual abuse (in which he was acquitted), Tamar Hodel had also accused her father of killing Elizabeth Short. In 1950, George Hodel was about to be charged with enough evidence for the murder when he left the US for the Philippines — where he started a new family. Other scandalous and nefarious aspects about George Hodel: he ran an illegal abortion service, had a lot of dirt on cops and politicians (which he obviously used well); in 1945, he was a suspect in the death of his secretary by drug overdose. He had an unhealthy fixation with Surrealist art (there were aspects of the Black Dahlia case that had connections to Surrealism). After George’s death in 1999, his son Steve Hodel — a former LAPD detective — found evidence that his father really was the Black Dahlia murderer (and maybe even the Zodiac killer!). Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up. But we digress.
I Am The Night opens with “Pat” (India Eisley) learning about her real name and that she was given up for adoption by her birth mother. Her adoptive mother Jimmie Lee (Golden Brooks) hesitatingly confirms that Pat’s real name is indeed Fauna, although she continues to insist on Fauna’s biracial-ness. Fauna contacts her grandfather George Hodel (Jefferson Mays), who invites her to his place in Los Angeles. In an interesting fact-meets-fiction twist to the story, Jimmie Lee contacts Jay Singletary (Chris Pine) — a fictional Korean War vet suffering from PTSD, addiction and a wrecked career as a journalist — and reignites his interest in George Hodel.
The backstory here is that Singletary’s journalistic career was ruined after the incest trial in 1949, when he believed Tamar and went after the rich and well-connected George Hodel. What follows is a delicious period noir mystery, as Fauna travels to Los Angeles to learn about her true origins while Jay stumbles from one meaningless assignment to another; their paths eventually cross in the middle of family drama (Fauna going to meet her step-grandmother) and danger (Jay somewhat “rescues” Fauna from ‘Sepp’, a deranged protege of George Hodel’s, who’s tasked with keeping an eye on her).
Five episodes in (and just one to go), there have been plenty of really disturbing sequences with George Hodel, the orgies at his mansion, his obsession with Surrealism, his near-stalking of Fauna, the utter sinister-ness of the entire Hodel family, and the creepy Sepp — who’s desperate to prove to his mentor George Hodel that he’s ready for “the real thing.”
Of course, there are some artistic liberties at play here: in the series, when Fauna eventually finds Tamar in Hawaii, the latter pretty much confirms that George Hodel is also Fauna’s father (in reality, we don’t know this for certain). With the series being set in the mid-late ’60s, there’s also the fictional interest in anything related to George Hodel at that time (IRL, by then, Hodel had been out of the country for over a decade, although Steve Hodel argued that his father had re-entered the US for a while in 1968-69 to “commit more murders”!). In the series, everyone keeps dismissing Jay’s belief that George Hodel was guilty (of incest and the Black Dahlia murder) with no mention of the actual fact that the police had enough evidence to charge Hodel — it’s a bit difficult to believe that given the fact that they came this close to charging him before he left the country, the LAPD wouldn’t have been keen to follow up on that if they knew Hodel was right there in Los Angeles in the ’60s. But then again, that’s the power of money and clout, which George Hodel had in abundance, to wield over the police. Unless the series veers very far from the truth, it’s obvious that George Hodel will come out of it alive. So will Fauna, although the same can’t be said of Singletary (who is probably a combination of several different persons from that time).
At its heart, I Am The Night isn’t a story of murder and death, but about a young girl’s search for truth, family and identity. Patty Jenkins and her husband (series creator Sam Sheridan) have certainly tried to make the series more about Fauna and the people in her family/life — each episode ends with black and white photographs of the real people from the story, and while that’s a nice touch, unfortunately, the writing and pacing of the series isn’t quite suited to explore those profound sentiments with any real depth. When Fauna finds out from Tamar that she isn’t actually black (something that has been part of her identity for 16 years, and one she’s proud of), the anguish Fauna feels in that moment is lost because of the other bombshell Tamar drops — that Fauna’s grandfather is also her father. Fauna’s identity and confusion ought to have been at the very core of I Am The Night.
According to Refinery29, “For the real Fauna Hodel, this was devastating news. “I almost died when I found out I wasn't Black,” Fauna told DuJour. “Being Black was so important to me.” She'd spent her entire life waiting for her skin to "darken," as her adoptive mother promised would happen.” There’s a scene in the first episode where “Pat” is walking home with a boy she likes, they stop to kiss by the side of the road as a police car comes by and stops next to them, the cops separate the two and are about to rough up the “coloured” guy she’s with when she proudly informs the cops that she’s coloured too. There’s a whole undercurrent with Fauna’s black cousins that remains completely unexplored partly because the writing is a bit lazy and partly because material like this probably requires a 7-8 episode series to do it justice, a la Big Little Lies.
Chris Pine’s character Jay probably wasn’t absolutely necessary for the story, but is Sam Sheridan’s best piece of writing on the series. As he explained in Metro, “This is what inspired some of the greatest noir mysteries," he says of the Black Dahlia murder and the story of George Hodel. "I quickly figured out that if there was this guy, this character who's the classic noir foil, then this would be a way to structure the story of Fauna Hodel. It'd be a great way to get audiences engaged and invested in what's happened to her and what she's going through." Pine, whether due to the soulfulness of the source material or the ease of working with his Wonder Woman director and friend, gives a terrific performance as the down-but-not-out Singletary, seamlessly switching from being a paparazzi snooping on a starlet to intense photojournalist trying to unravel the truth.
I’ll be honest, most of my intrigue in the story comes from having read about the Black Dahlia murder case and George Hodel’s involvement in it; without that background, I’m not sure I Am The Night would’ve felt quite as interesting as it does right now. I’m excited to see how the series ends. We know how the true story has gone so far — Fauna Hodel died in 2017 and George Hodel was never charged for any of his alleged crimes. I Am The Night might not rank as one of the best true crime series of all time, but it’s certainly a very good, gripping addition to a true crime aficionado's weekly TV viewing.
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