Historical information about Joseph Bologne has been pieced together, and the film Chevalier has a lot of interesting subplots that are doubtless fictional. But the message of the film is one of the most fascinating of 2023 and seems very timely indeed, with White males infuriated by an upstart Black whom they try to undermine by identifying his decorum as unacceptable.
Joseph Bologne (played by Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) was the son of Georges de Bologne Saint-Georges, owner of a French plantation of slaves on the French Caribbean island of Guadaloupe, who had sex with his Senegalese female maid. As a 7-year-old boy, he demonstrates considerable intelligence, so his birthfather drops him off at a private Jesuit academy in Paris with the injunction “Always be excellent.” Although one assault by White students is depicted, he later enrolls in a fencing school at age 13; he learns the craft so well that at age 16 he defeats the top fencing master of the day, whose racist assumptions about the superiority of White men are demolished. King Louis XVI then appoints him to be one of his bodyguards at Versailles, whereupon he becomes Chevalier de Saint-Georges. While in Paris, he studies music and by age 24 launches a musical career as violinist. After asked to conduct an orchestra at age 31, he becomes a composer, and his compositions include many string quarters and symphonies. At one point he is joined by his birthmother Nanon (Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo), who gained her freedom when Chevalier’s birthfather dies and warns Chevalier not to trust White people.
But the film’s robust drama begins with a fictional ongoing concert in which Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Joseph Prowen) is conducting an orchestra. At the end of the formal concert, Mozart asks the audience for anything else they want to hear. Self-assured Bologne then comes forward, walks up to the stage, and asks Mozart if he can play, too. Soon they engage in a musical violin duel in which Bologne proves that his talents are extraordinary, and the audience applauds him while Mozart exits to get away from the “stranger.”
The rest of Chevalier, directed by Stephen Williams, is roughly based on the biography The Chevalier de Saint-Georges: Virtuoso of the Sword and the Bow (2006) by Gabriel Banat. As a musician, his performances impress Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton), who in the film gives him his title Chevalier (Knight). She then introduces him around the court, he is invited to dance at balls, and is welcomed in salons of highborn ladies. His musical talents also achieve considerable recognition by high society as well as members of the middle class. At one point, he proposes to lead the Paris Opera, and there is agreement that the decision rests on his writing a new opera in competition with a White composer, Christopher Gluck (Henry Lloyd-Hughes). Marie-Josephine de Comarieu (Samara Weaving), the lead soprano in his opera, falls in love with him, betraying her racist husband, Marquis de Montalembert (Marton Csokas). Eventually, she gives birth to a son, but Chevalier is crushed when the Marquis removes the son to an undisclosed location and forces Marie-Josephine to disavow the relationship. Chevalier spurns a relationship with opera star La Guimard (Minnie Driver) but also befriends a member of the court who wants France to become a democracy. The people of Paris, meanwhile, are beginning to protest in favor of democracy.
When the time comes to choose who will lead the Paris Opera, his rejection of La Guimar results in his being informed that someone of his race cannot occupy such a position. He then gets drunk, is disorderly in court, yet he regains his stature by performing with fellow Blacks elsewhere in Paris and continuing musical performances. Then one day the Marquis emerges in the theater with a gun pointed at him. The climax of the film then follows, with subtitles indicating that the French Revolution began in 1789, and that he commanded a cavalry unit of freed Black slaves defending the new French Republic from dissident groups. But he was out of favor with racist Napoléon, who tried to expunge Chevalier from history.
Chevalier serves as a biopic, though there is much more to tell about his life, so a sequel is possible. The Political Film Society has nominated Chevalier at best film exposé, bringing to light facts about a person long forgotten, as well as best film on democracy and best film on human rights. MH