Tucked away in the iconic dream of California, buried beneath Los Angeles’ alluring mystique, is the horrifying unsolved murder of Elizabeth Short. She became known to the world by her nickname, The Black Dahlia, and she has lived on in infamy due to her brutal death. She haunts the Hollywood landscape with her raven hair—forever scarred with a wretched smile. It was a crime so foul, so seemingly evil that it fostered an obsessive cultural fascination. From James Ellroy’s novel, The Black Dahlia, which led to Brian De Palma adapting his own cinematic disaster, to TNT’s latest mini-series variation, I Am the Night—the need for answers runs so deep that many creators have tried to solve this case through a variety of mediums.
Plot Summary (Spoilers)
I Am the Night isn’t really about The Black Dahlia though. The six-part mini-series focuses on a fictionalized version of a real woman named Fauna Hodel, played by India Eisley. It begins in the mid 1960s and takes the viewer on Fauna’s journey to Los Angeles to find her biological family. She was raised by an African American woman named Jimmie Lee, who named her Pat. She also believed herself to be of mixed race. However, when she discovers her true birth certificate with the name Fauna Hodel on it, Jimmie Lee tells her that she was given to her as baby by a rich white family from Los Angeles. Fauna and Jimmie Lee’s relationship is already strained, so after placing a call to her grandfather, George Hodel, who invites her to Los Angeles, Fauna takes off to California. As it turns out, George Hodel, played by Jefferson Mays, had been a suspect in the murder of The Black Dahlia.
Coinciding with Fauna’s discovery is the story of a down-and-out journalist/ex-marine/junkie with super-human strength, named Jay Singletary, played by Chris Pine. Jay is a fictional character, whose career was ruined years earlier when he ran a story about George Hodel’s exploits with his daughter and Fauna’s biological mother, Tamar Hodel. After which, Jay saw combat in Korea and now suffers from extreme post-traumatic stress. He also abuses drugs and seems to barely take care of himself when the series begins. He receives an anonymous call from Jimmie Lee (Golden Brooks) one night. She tells him he was onto something with George Hodel in the past and advises him to keep looking into the case. It fuels Jay to renew his investigation into the Hodel family, where his path ultimately collides with Fauna’s.
They strike up a partnership/friendship of sorts and begin working together to find more answers. Unfortunately for Fauna, she discovers that her mother, Tamar, was a victim of incest, and George Hodel is not her grandfather; he’s really her father. Tamar took George to court and had publicly accused him of killing Elizabeth Short years before, but he was never convicted. After, Tamar moved to Hawaii to live in exile. Fauna is shocked to learn this information and calls Jimmie Lee for comfort. However, George has been toying with Fauna all along and is one step ahead of her. He stabs Jimmie Lee and then tries to trap Fauna in his house. George is ready to make Fauna his next victim, but she fights back and gets away. Jay ends up a fugitive while George Hodel flees. The series ends with Fauna circling back to Jimmie Lee. She writes to Jay to thank him for helping her and we see that Jay is finally coming to terms with his demons.
One of the highlights of this mini-series was Chris Pine. He did a terrific job playing Jay Singletary, and his character draws attention to the misconduct of the Los Angeles Police Department. The subject of which has been the focus of many authors and investigators who have written about The Black Dahlia murder, and many other cases over the years. The LAPD’s historical corruption, racism and connections to the Hollywood elite have been responsible for many heated debates, violence and rioting for decades. The cases of Rodney King and O.J. Simpson in the 1990s are great examples of this.
Separating Fact from Fiction
I Am the Night blends a mix of fact and fiction to create its own universe. In real life, George Hodel’s son and retired LAPD homicide detective, Steve Hodel, has written a series of books naming his father as Elizabeth Short’s killer, as well as other women. He believes that George Hodel was a serial killer and even suggests his father was the Zodiac killer. I Am the Night also features pictures of the real Hodel family at the end of every episode, spotlighting the true aspects of this story. However, being that George Hodel was never convicted, the series tries a bit too hard to name him the killer. It also feels slightly exploitative of the Hodel family to use the brutal death of Elizabeth Short for their own fame and profit. On a conscious level, it’s impossible to escape this when watching I Am the Night. Yet it’s still satisfying to receive an answer to The Black Dahlia murder; even if it’s only a compelling fictional one.
The elements of truth in this story do make a persuasive argument for George Hodel being a viable suspect in The Black Dahlia murder. He was accused of incest by his daughter, Tamar, in 1949. There was a trial, but he was acquitted, despite three witnesses saying they saw him having sex with his daughter. George Hodel then became one of the LAPD’s suspects in the murder of Elizabeth Short. He was put under surveillance in 1950, where George was recording saying, “Supposin’ I did kill the Black Dahlia. They couldn’t prove it now. They can’t talk to my secretary any more because she’s dead.” The secretary he’s referring to was Ruth Spaulding, who died of a drug overdose. The police suspected foul play on the part of George Hodel, but he was never convicted and the case was dropped.
The Sowden House was built by Lloyd Wright, son of Frank Lloyd Wright, in 1926 for his friend, John Sowden. It is also where parts of I Am the Night were filmed, and where Steve Hodel believes Elizabeth Short was murdered by his father. The house sits in the heart of Los Angeles on Franklin Ave. It is also where Steve Hodel and Tamar Hodel grew up, and where Tamar’s supposed abuse took place.
As a companion to the series, Fauna’s two daughter’s, Yvette and Rasha, host a podcast called Root of Evil. They open with David Lynch’s song “Star Dream Girl” and feature real audio tapes that their mother recorded over the years, as well as interviews with members of the Hodel family. In real life, Fauna Hodel died in September 2017. She was separated from Jimmie Lee as a teenager and met the Hodel family a few years later. Her relationship with her biological mother, Tamar Hodel, was strained, as Tamar was known to be very troubled. Fauna always wanted to write about her life, so she recorded and documented many of her conversations with Tamar. In 2008, Fauna, along with author J.R. Briamonte, published her memoir, One Day She’ll Darken: The Mysterious Beginnings of Fauna Hodel, which was the inspiration for I Am the Night.
On the Root of Evil podcast, Steve Hodel talks about his belief that his father was emulating the artist Man Ray and his surrealist style of art with Elizabeth Short’s murder. He believes that his father wanted to be recognized as an artist so badly that the way he tortured and abused Elizabeth Short’s body was actually a tribute to his friend, Man Ray. The artist Man Ray was known to photograph nude women in a variety of contoured and sexualized poses. He was also a family friend of the Hodels and had taken family portraits of them.
The irony of Hollywood making a variety of attempts at solving Elizabeth Short’s murder is that she, like so many young women, came to Hollywood with a dream of stardom. The horrid atrocities that she endured cast an ugly spell on the illusion that Hollywood is a place where dreams come true. For Elizabeth Short, it was truly the darkest of nightmares. On January 15th, 1947, her mutilated body was discovered in a vacant lot in Los Angeles. She was last seen alive six days prior at the Biltmore Hotel. The authorities believe that she was tied down and tortured for days. Her mouth was cut open from ear to ear, her torso cut in half, and her body was drained of all its blood before she was put on a vulgar display. The media later deemed her The Black Dahlia, after the 1946 murder mystery film, The Blue Dahlia, because of her jet black hair.
I Am the Night doesn’t go near the brutality that Elizabeth Short endured. It focuses solely on Fauna and Jay’s journey together, but it does make it clear that George Hodel was an abusive, sex-obsessed psychopath. Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins takes a highly embellished stab at piecing the mystery together through the viewpoint of the Hodel family. The series succeeds in telling an intriguing story and it’s pleasing on its own. Chris Pine’s performance in the series might be the best of his career thus far. Despite the talented efforts of India Eisley as Fauna Hodel and the sinister portrayal Jefferson Mays displays as George Hodel, Chris Pine steals the show as Jay Singletary. On a whole, it’s definitely worth watching and touches upon many social issues of the 1960s. However, if you’re looking for factual information on the murder of The Black Dahlia, I Am the Night doesn’t deliver. B+