I Am The Night; Rod Serling’s Testament Against Hatred
By Jeff Baker
The fifth season of the original Twilight Zone gets unjustly maligned. The show was showing its age and while there were some classics (“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”) there were some clunkers (“The Encounter”). One of those episodes deserves a re-examination.
“I Am the Night, Color Me Black” aired March 27, 1964, and I have agreed with many that it is a heavy-handed and obvious diatribe against racial injustice and prejudice. Valid concerns in the country in 1964, but Zone had done it better earlier, for example in the episode “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street.” “I Am the Night…” was written by Rod Serling as a reaction to the shocking assassination of President Kennedy in November 1963. It aired four months later when the wound was still fresh. The script comes across as a testament against hatred. The current mood in this country makes the episode more topical and even meaningful, even for a series whose every moment has been viewed, studied and even re-made (for radio most recently) fifty-four years after the fact.
“I Am the Night…” begins on the morning of an execution in a small town. A man named Jagger is scheduled to be executed for murder, a killing he insists was self-defense. The victim was an avowed bigot and racist. Sentiment in the town is that hanging Jagger is not only justice, but something to look forward to. The town is practically giddy at the prospect of the man’s death, including Pierce, Sheriff Koch’s Deputy, and Koch’s own wife. But something is out of place.
Rod Serling’s narration sets up the situation: “Logic and natural laws dictate that at this hour there should be daylight. It is a simple rule of physical science that the sun should rise at a certain moment and supersede the darkness.” In other words, it’s dark where there should be daylight. The sun has not risen. Not a glimmer of daylight.
As the morning proceeds, we listen to the sheriff, the deputy and even the condemned man. None of whom come off very good in this. The sheriff ignored requests for an autopsy of the victim, the deputy may have perjured himself and the killer, even though it may have been justified, shows no remorse.
“Let’s go! Let’s get on with it!” someone in the crowd gathered to watch the hanging shouts and the crowd responds gleefully. For them, it’s almost a party. The dialogue in this episode feels more like the characters are reading a testament, not acting lines in a teleplay. (“Don’t return their hate. Don’t dishonor yourself,” says Reverend Anderson. “Why don’t you go home and get outta here I got too much hate in me to keep plugged-up anymore,” responds Jagger, as he walks up the steps of the gallows.) It had, as I said, been done better before and this episode has been dismissed as too preachy and obvious, including in Marc Scott Zicree’s excellent book “The Twilight Zone Companion.” But now, the episode seems very topical, with hatred and division being used in our politics and our public discourse with some success. As the execution is concluded what light there is in the little village dims and the radio reports patches of unexplained darkness covering other places on the Earth including a street in Dallas, a political prison in Budapest, the Berlin Wall and other places.
For any of its flaws “I Am the Night, Color Me Black” is well-served by its cast; Michael Constantine as the sheriff, George Lindsey playing dramatically against type as the deputy, Terry Becker as Jagger and Ivan Dixon as the reverend.
It is Dixon’s Reverend Anderson who offers the pronouncement that is the crux of the episode: “Do you know why it’s dark? Do you know why it’s night all around us? Do you know what the blackness is? It’s the hate he felt, the hate you felt the hate all of us feel and there’s too much of it, there’s just too much and so we had to vomit it out but now it’s coming up all around us and choking us.”
In our own day, concerns about bigotry are being brushed aside as “political correctness” even as politicians capitalize on fear and hatred. Not all of them, but some very vocal ones. Serling’s preachment seems very current, for an episode that aired in 1964, written by a man who died in 1975.
Rod Serling should have the last word, from his closing narration for the episode: “A sickness known as hate; not a virus, not a microbe, not a germ—but a sickness nonetheless, highly contagious, deadly in its effects. Don’t look for it in the Twilight Zone–look for it in a mirror. Look for it before the light goes out altogether.”
Jeff Baker blogs about writing and reading sci-fi and horror and other sundry matters around the thirteenth of each month. He has been published in Queer Sci-Fi’s “Renewal” among other places, and appears on Facebook as Jeff Baker, Author. He also blogs and posts fiction at http://authorjeffbaker.com. Rod Serling has been one of his heroes since he saw the original telecasts of “Night Gallery.” He watches “Twilight Zone” reruns with his husband Darryl in Wichita, Kansas.