‘Chevalier’: A Black French composer’s story returns from oblivion in new film
Kelvin Harrison

In director Stephen Williams’s big-budget new film Chevalier, now playing in theaters nationwide, Joseph Bologne (Kelvin Harrison), the illegitimate son of an African slave and a French plantation owner on the lucrative French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, rises to improbable heights in Parisian society as a celebrated violinist-composer and fencer. After witnessing Bologne best France’s top fencer in a celebrated match defined as a contest between racially superior France and the pollution of African and Caribbean people who have settled there, Queen Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton) personally anoints him the Chevalier de Saint-Georges as “a true man of France.”

Williams has given us a movie, not a documentary. For a number of reasons, there are many missing pieces to Bologne’s life story, so any number of dramatic episodes have been invented, almost to the point of soap opera, to fill in the requisite blanks needed for mass appeal. Broad artistic license steps in where the history books and the archival documentation falter.

One reason that enormous gaps in his life and work exist is that in 1802, when Napoleon Bonaparte restored slavery—only 13 years after the emancipatory French Revolution—he ordered all of the late Bologne’s works destroyed and forbade performances of it. Within one generation the name of this “Black Mozart” had been all but forgotten. No wonder the German composer Ludwig van Beethoven, one of his country’s most passionate Enlightenment spokesmen, scratched out Napoleon’s name as the dedicate of his Third Symphony—named the “Eroica” or “heroic”—for betraying the sacred ideals of Liberté, Égalité and Fraternité.

The film version comes complete with a love affair (natch), a generous sprinkling of episodes of overt racism against the composer of color, a poignant, difficult reunion with his Creole-speaking mother Nanon (Ronke Adekoluejo), who has been emancipated upon the death of Joseph’s father, the roiling masses of the coming Revolution, a public falling out with his patroness, the Queen, and a pregnancy, for starters.

Throughout, a rich musical score is provided by Kris Bowers, the London Contemporary Orchestra incorporating several of the surviving compositions by Bologne and other contemporary works. One of the liberties the filmmakers allow—Stefani Robinson has the writing credit—is to portray Bologne not just as an accomplished performer and composer, but as a creative spirit who can virtually summon forth the musical idioms of the future.

The opening scene of the film demonstrates this: The beloved Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Joseph Prowen) is giving a virtuoso concert of his music in Paris and for an encore he invites the public to call out for a composition they’d like him and his orchestra to play. When the demand comes for the Violin Concerto in G Major, the young, unknown Bologne leaps from the audience to the stage offering to perform it, a seemingly preposterous proposal coming from an anonymous man of color. Mozart and Bologne competitively trade off riffs, and in his cadenzas, where in classical music clever improvisation and virtuosity are displayed, Bologne introduces tonalities and chords nonexistent in the music of his day, specifically jazz. “Who the fuck is that?” the legendarily crude Mozart asks.

This gift from the beyond, never documented in Bologne’s own life, also inhabits a number of later scenes. Notably, once his mother joins him in Paris and reminds him of an African song she used to sing to him as a young child, he incorporates it into a new composition he performs at a concert to raise funds for the revolutionary cause. The idea of “world music,” in other words, is not so new. In fact, in another example of Bologne’s clairvoyance, the new work he presents bears a striking, and highly unlikely resemblance to the minimalist esthetics of a Steve Reich or Philip Glass. In another scene, the Black population of Paris gathers in a street fair where an impromptu bands strikes up, and Joseph tries his hand(s) on the conga drum.

In such ways, the 107-minute filmscript is constantly reminding the viewer how absolutely up-to-date and relevant this story is, almost a demonstration of the need for DEI—Diversity, Equity, Inclusion—today. Toward the end, when the Queen turns against the rebellious musician who has been slighted on account of his race just one too many a time, she threatens to revoke his title, take everything from him, basically turn him into a non-person: “You will be erased,” she tells him.

“At one moment I was a ‘man of France,’” Bologne replies, “but now I am only a Negro.” Of course, we know that she will be “erased”—well, in 1793 at least her head will be—before Bologne dies at 53 in 1799.

“Joseph’s life is so rich,” says Jamaican-born Stephen Williams. “It could fuel six movies. I think that we all come into the world in one posture. Life happens to us, we have experiences in life, and we grow and we change, and hopefully we become more authentic and truer versions of ourselves, having gone through the gristmill of all that life can throw at us. This felt like an empowering story despite all the obstacles. It’s a story that I recognize. More, it is one I want to share with people.”

Aside from the revelatory history the film tells, with the recuperation of a great man’s reputation, Chevalier is a stunning, swashbuckling costume drama, with charming Old World sets and interiors to match. To replicate the period, Williams filmed in the Czech Republic.

Kelvin Harrison as the Chevalier and Lucy Boynton as Marie Antoinette

History is replete with stories of strong women, and Williams pointedly includes several here—Bologne’s lover, the married woman Marie-Josephine de Comarieu (Samara Weaving), who at a “progressive” meeting stands (on a billiard table) to declaim for the rights of women alongside the new Rights of Man; the writer and essayist Madame de Genlis (Sian Clifford), who supplies a libretto for Bologne’s first opera and produces it; and La Guimard (Minnie Driver).

Joseph’s mom, giving him a hairdo of corn rows to affirm his newfound African identity, renders a powerful speech about the concept of choice in life: It cannot be taken away, for choice is within, and there is always the choice to fight. As she, indeed, fought to keep her son (she lost that battle when his father removed him to Paris), and now again fights to gain his respect and love, and help him regain a sense of racial and cultural pride.

So, yes, despite its period setting, this is indeed a film with a winking modern sensibility. As Williams says, “I definitely didn’t want to make a movie that was medicine. This movie, it’s entertaining, but you are also going to learn something about someone you probably didn’t know about, and it is nestled into a time period that has something to say about our current moment.” He freely admits to being inspired by a musical revolutionary from his own country—Bob Marley.

I give this film high marks, not because it’s so historical faithful (we’ve seen why) but because it takes an obscure subject and makes it enjoyably palatable—quite entertaining, actually—especially if you like exploring Black and/or French history and/or if you enjoy classical music.

The trailer can be viewed here. A preview of Joseph Bologne’s opera The Anonymous Lover and more about his life can be read here.

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Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.