THE ABSTRACT: “Chevalier” is a decent movie about an extraordinary man.

In July 2020, an article resonated with me as a musician and a composer. The piece criticized the idea of referring to Joseph Bologne as the “Black Mozart.” Bologne, a versatile genius and all-time classical music great in his own right, deserves recognition beyond a simple comparison to an arbitrary white standard. This notion is central to the opening scene of director Stephen Williams’ latest film, Chevalier, starring Kelvin Harrison Jr. as Bologne.

The film begins with a concert scene in which Bologne joins Mozart on stage for a duet, ultimately stealing the show and leaving the audience amazed and Mozart displeased. While Chevalier is not a revolutionary biopic, its sincerity as a character study and celebration elevates it beyond generic territory.

Bologne’s story is complex: born to a wealthy white French planter and an enslaved Black woman, he is abandoned at a young age and forced to pursue excellence. By the time Harrison Jr. portrays him, Bologne is already a virtuoso and friend of Marie Antoinette (played by Lucy Boynton), using his sophistication as a shield and gaining a reputation for arrogance. As he seeks the conductor position at the Paris Opera, he also navigates the brewing revolution in France, realizing that his talents alone cannot guarantee equal treatment.

The film itself is operatic in style, with a meticulously designed Parisian setting and a soundtrack that sets the mood. The characters are impeccably dressed and engage in witty banter reminiscent of Bridgerton. However, Chevalier is ultimately a star vehicle, focusing on Bologne as the central character. Harrison Jr. delivers a charismatic and powerful performance, portraying Bologne’s internal struggles in a world that rejects him.

Throughout the film, the French Revolution looms in the background, reflecting the changing attitudes towards democracy, equality, and the visibility of Black Parisians. Chevalier connects Bologne’s struggles with the radical promise of the revolution, although this connection is not fully realized until the end. The film’s conclusion leans towards a Hollywood-style veneration of a great man, reminding the audience that they are watching a crowd-pleasing biopic.

This is not completely off-base though. Bologne’s achievements in the classical music world are particularly remarkable given the racial barriers he faced. He was the first known Black classical composer, and his contributions to music include numerous symphonies, string quartets, sonatas, and operas. Bologne’s works were performed and celebrated by prestigious orchestras and ensembles, such as the Concert des Amateurs, which he conducted and transformed into one of the best orchestras in Paris.

Bologne’s influence extended beyond music, as he was a prominent figure in French society and a friend of Marie Antoinette. He was also an active participant in the French Revolution, taking on the role of a colonel in the Légion St.-Georges, the first all-Black regiment in Europe, fighting for equality and liberty.

Joseph Bologne’s historical significance is not only limited to his artistic and social achievements but also his impact as an early symbol of Black excellence in a predominantly white European context. His accomplishments paved the way for future Black musicians and composers, inspiring generations to come.

As the credits roll at the end of Chevalier, we learn that most of Bologne’s works and records were destroyed under Napoleon’s rule. This revelation underscores the film’s purpose: to tell the rousing story of a long-forgotten figure who deserves a legend to enshrine his name. Through Chevalier, Joseph Bologne is celebrated as a singular genius, no longer relegated to comparisons with Mozart but standing as a musical icon in his own right.

WORDS: brice.

IMAGE CREDIT: Searchlight Pictures.

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