Let me start off by saying that, no matter what you’ve heard I am the night is not “The Black Dahlia Story”. I am the Night is based on the memoir of Fauna Hodel One Day She’ll Darken: The Mysterious Beginnings of Fauna Hodel, in which she wrote about finding her identity and her family amidst scandal, tragedy, and bigotry. Although her story is tangentially connected to the Dahlia murder, Hodel’s is its own intriguing slice of old Hollywood noir, complete with the shadowy characters, randy reporter, and odd underbelly that is slowly revealed as each episode in the miniseries is laid out.
The show should be one on your binge list. It centers the black community in a way that no other Hollywood noir film has without being labeled “a black movie”. I Am the Night also approaches Hodel’s identity like an American Horror Story-adjacent mystery that makes it hard to remember that the whole thing is based on a true story.
The center of the story is Fauna Hodel, played by India Eisley. She is from a small town in Southern Nevada that feels like a Mississippi town. We are introduced to her and her life in Episode 1, a young black girl raised in a black community in the 1950s. She is the light skinned one of the group, has plenty of friends, and is very much at home in her life with her mother Jimmy Lee, played by Golden Brooks. One day, Fauna finds information that leads her to believe she is adopted and may not be black. Jimmy Lee confirms that she has a white mom but is biracial and that’s all Jimmy Lee will reveal.
Fauna is eager to find her roots, so she reaches out to a man who ends up being the most dangerous person she could contact. He is a suspected murder — the man who may have committed the infamous Black Dahlia murder and several others. He is also her grandfather, George Hodel. Fauna launches headlong into her search, leaving Las Vegas for Los Angeles where leaning on the black family who raised her for support and eventually having to turn to them for protection as well when things get hairy.
Chris Pine enters the narrative as Jay, a burned-out alcoholic reporter who is hellbent on chasing the Black Dahlia murders and others that are being attributed to another killer. He’s sloppy and unshaven (and still looks amazing, by the way) and turns out to be Fauna’s best hope for finding out about her family. He also ends up being the only person to save her from herself when she forgoes Jimmy Lee’s advice and that of the rest of the family and starts mingling with the Hodel clan. The only way to get to the truth is to find her mother.
(This happened in Episode 5. Are you still standing after hearing the tea that Mama Hodel spilled? I just about choked on my actual tea and had to rewind to be sure I heard the story right! How many of you had church-fan yourselves to keep from passing out because it was so shocking? I did. Find me on Twitter to discuss.)
Race and Old Hollywood
Black people are usually a part of the scenery when it comes to Old Hollywood noir films. They are the help, the caregivers, the sidekicks, and others who appear in the film as tools to serve the white leads. I Am the Night centers the black community by making them central Fauna’s story. They are her family, her friends, her lovers, her people. The show gives us so many nuanced examples of blackness in the 1950s by following Fauna to school where she is chided for being light-skinned, with a boy she likes and having to assure them that she is black and so is her boyfriend isn’t arrested, and even in Jimmy Lee’s hanging out in the backyard with the neighbors after work. All of this in the first episode, but it isn’t isolated.
In fact, when Fauna does go see her white family, it’s a foreign world. Not only does she discover the racial disparities, but the class differences are also glaringly uncomfortable as well. She begins to see just how impoverished her upbringing really was. Fauna is also able to see where her “home” really is, and how that definition clashes with her expectations and her ultimate findings. The parallels between the two worlds is another thing to note while watching. The difference in all factors into the ultimate question of Fauna’s true identity and the one person she wants to be.
Jenkins and Her Priorities in I Am the Night
I got to talk to the creator and director of the first episode, Patty Jenkins about the centering of identity and blackness in a story that has been told too many times over. Jenkins said the struggle with identity is what drew her to the story, so it had to be the focus. She also insisted that she was not going to set out to tell another Black Dahlia story. We’ve seen it too many times. Although the horrible mystery is related to Fauna’s story, her search for who she is and deciding what she wanted to be after that search is the point of the story. She overturns some pretty treacherous things in her search, but always falls back on the blackness she was raised in for support and comfort. This too ultimately matters to the identity the girl ends up taking on. Laying out what made up that identity, no matter how bizarre, terrible, or hateful it may be was Jenkins priority here.
The way the story weaves all of the elements together is not difficult to follow. In fact, the way each piece in the mystery unfolds will have audiences on the edge of their seats anticipating the next revelation. The story is full of dirty details of rich and famous with a teenage girl caught in the middle opening all the doors and leading everything out into the open. I also have to commend Jenkins for keeping Pine and his character on the periphery until their part of the story surfaces. It would be easy to feature him everywhere, but then the story would not be about the girl.
I Am the Night is Fauna’s story, and there is never any doubt about that.
I Am the Night season finale is Sunday, March 3 on TNT. You can binge the show on the TNT app and On Demand.
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Jonita Davis is a writer, mother, a certified nerd, and writer of Black Girl Nerds. Davis is a critic and journalist. She has been writing for 13 years about the way pop culture and politics affect our lives as parents, women, black women, nerds, and people of this planet.