Headline to Headlights: Oscar Micheaux's Exploitation of the Rhinelander Case

Article excerpt

Abstract

Oscar Micheaux, an African American writer and filmmaker who has emerged as one of the prolific African American filmmakers in cinema history, promoted and linked several of his films to the court case known as the Rhinelander Case. Rhinelander was a wealthy white millionaire who married an African American woman in the mid-1920s. The trial overturned the forced annulment and validated the marriage, despite the racial and sexual politics that dominated the discourse of this period. The article below explores the African American press' sensationalizing of the Rhinelander Case and Micheaux's strategic exploitation of the media attention, linking it with his films, employing marketing and promotional strategies to generate appeal for his works among African American cinema audiences.

Debated, titillating imaginations, and unabatedly fascinating intermarriage between the races has proved endlessly appealing and has continuously garnered the media's attention. Headlines and headlights focusing on intermarriage provide a prurient appeal because of the unending allure and potential for profit making. Exploited in the media with or without authentic sources, contemporary writers or reporters compete with each other to dominate the coverage that these relationships receive, catering to an inquisitive and perhaps culturally deprived/depraved public. The media, eager to transgress the boundaries of race and intensify the fascination associated with the taboo of interracial relationships, reached frenzied levels, during the O. J. Simpson case, with interracial marriage undergirding the murder trial of a famous African American former athlete, accused (and acquitted) of murdering his white ex-wife.

Interracial relationships between the races has been a volatile subject for debate. America's preoccupation with race and sex has invaded the politics of our society. Even in the early 20th century, intermarriage provoked debate and invited a discussion of the underlying reasons why these relationships created appeal, held our attention, and endlessly fascinated us. It forces one to question: Was society intrigued by these relationships because they allowed us to vicariously transgress the boundaries of race? Did these relationships represent a merging of the self with Other? Did these relationships allow a coming to terms with our greatest fears regarding race and sexuality? Are such relationships vehicles around which we can engage in a larger public debate regarding race and sexuality?

As early as the mid-1920s, the press operated in much the same manner (perhaps less intently), as the media today, eager in those days to exploit or sensationalize cases involving intermarriage. The driving force was to appeal to the public. Operating under a system of monetary rewards, success was measured competitively by the readers' clamor for coverage. In 1924, a media frenzy erupted surrounding the annulment of a marriage between an African American, Alice Jones, and white millionaire Kip Rhinelander. Tensions ran high, and the presses, both white and black, sank their teeth into this lurid case, which was a tantalizing microcosm of interracial relationships. The case received extensive coverage, particularly in the African American press. At this point, African American Oscar Micheaux, a writer and a filmmaker of perhaps unequaled entrepreneurial skill, recognized that the Rhinelander-Jones case had great promotional value for his own films.

The essay that follows will examine the Jones/ Rhinelander case itself and will take note of how Micheaux strategically capitalized on the attention this case received, utilizing the coverage to promote his own works. Micheaux, who is one of the most prolific filmmakers in American cinema history and one of the few to survive the silent-to-sound period of filmmaking, deserves to be examined not only because of his talent as a filmmaker but also because of his skill in marketing and promoting films. …