Chevalier tells the story of Joseph Bologne, a man who went on to become the Chevalier de Saint-Georges and is regarded as one of the first known Black classical composers today.
Directed by Stephen Williams and written by Stefani Robinson, Chevalier is a biographical film based on the life of Joseph Bologne, a Creole man who was the illegitimate son of an enslaved African woman and her enslaver, Georges Bologne de Saint-Georges, a plantation owner.
Joseph Bologne, played by Kelvin Harrison Jr., was a man of many talents. He was well-known as an accomplished fencer, violinist, and composer in French high society at a time when slavery was still prevalent in French colonies.
An extraordinary man
Born in Guadeloupe, a French colony at that time, Joseph Bologne was brought to France at the age of seven for his education. As seen in the film, he was a highly skilled fencer from a very young age and did beat Alexandre Picard, a champion from Rouen.
He was also a prodigious violinist. He soon made a name for himself as a musician, and his concerts were praised by many, including Queen Marie Antoinette.
While it cannot be said if Joseph Bologne was truly Marie Antoinette’s close friend, as depicted in the film, it is known that he was one of the musicians invited to her musicales. Similarly, it is not known if Joseph Bologne was in love with Marie-Joséphine; there were only rumors regarding their affair.
It is also true that in 1776, Joseph Bologne was one of the candidates to be the next conductor of the Paris Opera and that he was not chosen only because he was a man of color; the opera’s famous stars did write a petition to Marie Antoinette to prevent Joseph Bologne from becoming the head.
Later, Joseph Bologne went on to join the French Revolution and served as a citizen-soldier. He joined the National Guard in Lille and was the colonel of the Légion St.-Georges, a legion that consisted of people of color and protected France from Austria in the war.
While Joseph Bologne, often referred to as the “Black Mozart”, outshining Mozart at his own concert gives the audience an exciting scene in the film, there is no evidence to suggest that it really happened in real life. It is believed that Mozart knew Joseph Bologne and that he even based a character on him.
When Napoleon reimposed slavery, he also tried to remove Joseph Bologne, who died in 1799, from history. Although much of his work was lost, the fact that films are still being made about him tells us that Napoleon did not succeed.
Even today, Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, is remembered as a critically acclaimed musician.