TNT’s I Am the Night
Directed by Patty Jenkins
Written by Sam Sheridan
* For a recap & review of the next episode, “Phenomenon of Interference” – click here
1965. A young girl, Pat (India Eisley), walks to school with friends. Everyone in class stands for the Pledge of Allegiance before another day starts. Pat’s light skinned, so not everyone immediately knows she’s black, but she sits at a “negro table“— a signifier of her race. This is only a year after the Civil Rights Act began to desegregate schools, so the wounds for black people were still awfully fresh. Not only does Pat have to deal with racism, she’s also got to deal with other black people taunting her, like one girl who threatens to cut her to “see if that blood is black.” On top of everything, she’s been seeing a black car stop by where they hangout, watching— cops, or something more sinister?
In Los Angeles, former Marine Jay Singletary (Chris Pine) is on the beach. He’s taking candid photographs of a rich old dude and his young lady friend. Since he came home from serving his country in the Korean War he’s become a shitty reporter chasing salacious leads in order to pay the bills. He’s early paparazzi, and that wasn’t nearly as easy as it is today. He’s also got a slight drug dependency.
On the road at night, Pat has to deal with cops stopping her and her boyfriend Louis. They question her about being “coloured.” They’re in disbelief that she’s mixed race but appears to pass as white. Nothing happens to her, yet it’s merely another case of her being stuck in this liminal space of blackness v. whiteness, where she doesn’t quite fit into either racial world.
Even at home her mother rages at her for being mixed race, too. When mom gets drunk, the daughter has a look through her things and finds a birth certificate— it shows her actual name as Faunda Hodel, her mother’s name as Tamar and that she’s white, as well as that her father is black, though it doesn’t have his name there. She didn’t know her own real name until this moment. She was given over to her adopted mother in a bathroom by a white woman who’d gotten “pregnant by a negro boy.” Everything this young girl knew about herself prior to today was a lie. She’s told her white family is rich, that her grandfather’s a “famous doctor” in L.A.
Jay goes to see Peter Sullivan (Leland Orser), who works for the L.A. Times, looking for any kind of lead to cover for a story, begging him. He’s going to a press conference about a murder in the morning, supposedly a young woman was hacked to death. Sullivan says there are “some stories you can‘t tell,” which is why Jay never became the promising reporter he was headed to be before going off to war.
Fauna works at the local hospital cleaning. She takes an opportunity to slip past everyone and have a look at the records room. There, she locates more information about her past, trying to piece together the little slivers she’s been able to find. But it’s a complex picture, and it’s absolutely going to take her on a long, difficult journey. She now knows her grandfather is Dr. George Hodel (Jefferson Mays), who signed off on the final adoption forms. Fauna calls him and he’s surprised. The doc says his daughter isn’t well, cautioning his granddaughter against contacting her. Grandpa wants her to come to L.A. and see him. She wants to leave, if anything just to get away from her sad, abusive life there in Nevada for a brief time. She heads off on the bus, followed by the man in the dark car who’s still watching from a distance.
At the big press conference, Jay has to sneak his way in after he can’t find his press pass, using a white doctor’s jacket and a commandeered stretcher to get into the hospital’s morgue rather than stand around with the rest of the reporters. He wants to get an up close look at the corpse. What he finds is a dismembered corpse, limbs and head cut off. He’s interrupted when the LAPD arrive, so he slips into a morgue drawer and gets locked inside. He starts to crack up laughing at his predicament, then Sergeant Billis (Yul Vazquez) and his man haul Jay outside to smack him around.
Later, Jay’s peeled out of the backseat by a friendly face, Dt. Ohls (Jay Paulson), who doesn’t like what he’s seeing. Ohls is an old army buddy. He suggests his pal press charges against the obviously corrupt cops, especially considering he’s a journalist. Jay would rather not rock the boat and end up dead in a jail cell someplace. 2018 isn’t particularly a wonderful time for journalists in America, or abroad, but either was 1965 so peachy, either. There’s no full accountability now, and back then there was even less. Back home, Jay deals with his own demons, like his addiction. Drugs are almost the only thing keeping him from suicide.
At a gas station, Fauna’s bus stops and she waits with a soda, where a older gentleman sits next to her for a smoke. He asks about her travels. She tells him about searching for her past. Little does she know she’s sitting with her grandfather, Dr. Hodel, and he’s been keeping an eye on her.
Oh, and the reason why Jay’s career as a reporter all but died? He did a story on Hodel, pissing off the bourgeois of L.A. Now, he’s getting a call from Fauna’s adopted mother, who wants him to keep digging into the doctor. The man’s home is like an orgiastic palace of Dionysian pleasures, and even his wife warns he’s a “dangerous man.” What exactly is Dr. Hodel hiding behind all that wealth?
Although Sherida could’ve focused on the gruesomeness of the Black Dahlia case to start things off, he chose to examine other things happening at the time to create a full(er) picture of how things were in 1965, from the state of the news media, police corruption, and racial politics. It’ll be interesting to watch how things progress from here. A great beginning. “Phenomenon of Interference” is next.