EXCLUSIVE: It’s a great story that delves into the caste system, racism and sexism. The Rhinelander Affair, written by William Kinsolving, follows the controversial 1925 divorce trial in New York involving a man from an upper-class New Rochelle family who married a bi-racial, working-class woman. It is a ripped from the headlines story from the 1920s with many meaty roles in what was a roller coaster ride about money, love, racism and betrayal.
The project is now being produced for the big screen by Mark and Christine Holder (who found the story), Octavia Spencer, Queen Latifah and Shakim Compere’s Flavor Unit Entertainment and Dave Broome (The Day I Met El Chapo). The Kingsolving manuscript, repped by Trident, is going out to publishers this summer.
The story revolves around Leonard Rhinelander and Alice Jones, who fell in love (she was 22 and he 18), and then were kept apart by Rhinelander’s family. However, they married in secret before it spilled into the papers and stayed that way for three years. At issue was whether Jones duped Leonard into marrying her by hiding the fact that she was bi-racial (she was the daughter of an English woman and an English-West Indian taxi driver). Leonard stood by Alice under intense media scrutiny until pressures — both internally with the family and externally — caused them to divorce.
When they went to court, Alice Rhinelander faced an all-white, all-male jury. At one point, Alice had to disrobe and show portions of her body to prove that she wasn’t “a Negro.”
Her defense attorney was a 55-year-old Lee Davis, a highly capable attorney who was facing great odds. He was a former DA who convicted 32 first-degree murderers, but this was a case unlike anything he had ever experienced.
The trial was perilous. Struggling to reach a strategy, Alice willingly admitted she had black blood in her veins, making the Rhinelanders’ charge moot. Then Davis stated that Leonard had to have known she was to some degree black. If so, there was no fraud. That’s when Alice had to disrobe and show parts of her body to prove her case.
The case unfolded in American during the throes of radical societal change of indulgence and even bigotry (the KKK would hold open rallies across the country during this time). In fact, the KKK was able to march 50,000 strong in Washington D.C. even as black regiments had fought for America during World War I; it was devastating for soldiers of color who had to watch the KKK hold rallies in big cities such as Chicago. The anti-protests that did occur during this time were small. That was the societal environment in which this trial took place.
Spencer is currently starring and executive producing Are You Sleeping, the first Apple production which is a 10-episode series. She is also starring in and producing Madame CJ Walker with LeBron James as a limited series at Netflix (that project is also being done with the Holders). She is also an exec producer along with DreamWorks on The Green Book, which will be released at the box office during the Thanksgiving holiday this year.
Flavor Unit has produced several films and TV series including Bringing Down the House, Beauty Shop, Deuces, The Queen Latifah Show and the current Scream for MTV. Latifah has been exec producing show after show including The Rap Game, From the Bottom Up and Let’s Stay Together.
You couldn’t have two better powerhouse women behind this. Both actresses have been noticed by Oscar, with Latifah getting a supporting acting nom for her work in Chicago several years ago and Spencer winning an Oscar for her supporting role in The Help and nominations for both Hidden Figures and Best Picture winner The Shape of Water.
Spencer is repped by WME and Jackoway Austen Tyerman; Latifah by CAA, manager Flavor Unit and Eisenberg, Tanchum & Levy; and Kinsolving by Erica Silverman at Trident Media.