Towards the end of Chevalier, Queen Marie Antoinette threatens French-Caribbean violinist and composer Joseph Bologne that if he goes up on stage and performs as part of the revolution she will do everything in her power to make sure his name and talents are erased from the history books. It’s the only power she has left over him. And to a degree, she succeeded. I ashamedly had no idea who Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-George, was before seeing this film, and yet I am quite familiar with Marie Antoinette. She attempted to have him erased, but now, more and more of his work is rightfully acknowledged. Chevalier is a commending part of that effort. Kelvin Harrison Jr. hits all the right notes in his portrayal and finally puts Joseph Bologne front and center where he should be.
Born of a wealthy French plantation owner and an enslaved Senegalese African woman, Joseph Bologne grew up among the elite but was never quite treated like one due to the color of his skin. He excelled at everything he did, becoming skilled at fencing and music, specifically the violin. His talents earned him the title Chevalier de Saint-Georges from Queen Marie Antoinette, with his ultimate goal to become the conductor of the Paris Opera. Yet despite his accomplishments, he comes to tragically realize that French society will never truly accept him.
Chevalier is a strong introduction to one of history’s forgotten greats. It opens with Joseph interrupting a performance by Mozart and challenging him to a musical duel of sorts and easily winning. There is a bit of cockiness in Joseph’s step but he’s clearly earned it. The unfortunate fact is that the majority of French society cannot see past the color of his skin to appreciate it. During a flashback scene, a young Joseph is told by his father that he must be perfect in everything that he does because that will earn him respect. Joseph’s strive for perfection is what drives everything he does. And yet it will never be met with the same respect. He is without a doubt the best at the violin in the film, but he is rarely treated like it. He is simply supposed to accept his position in society because his status among the elite is better than if he were a slave. To the French, he is still just another Black man no matter what he accomplishes. Joseph must be perfect in everything that he does just so he can stay afloat, whereas everyone else in the ruling class has had life handed to them on a silver platter.
While at an event, Joseph hears the lovely Marie-Josephine de Montalembert (Samara Weaving) singing and is immediately drawn to her despite her marriage to the marquis de Montalembert. In some ways, the two are connected in their trauma. Marie-Josephine is unhappy in her marriage but can do nothing about it because her husband controls nearly everything. As a woman, she has to obey. Her singing is all that she has, and even then she is pushed to the limit by the marquis. Chevalier is about the inequity among the French ancien régime. It’s about the racism, sexism, and classism that occurred. And it doesn’t matter how ‘perfect’ any person can be when these ideologies are ingrained in society.
Naturally this kind of upbringing would do a number on a person, and Kelvin Harrison Jr. brilliantly captures the struggle of Joseph Bologne. He’s a man from two different worlds with a foot in each. He’s Black and an elite, but never fully accepted in either. At one point his mother returns after being freed and explains it to him how the elite will never fully accept him despite his talents. Joseph brushes her off because he’s been treated well, but somewhere deep down inside himself he knows its true. You can see the pain and solitude on Harrison Jr.’s face as he tries to process it all. He desperately wants to be accepted, but true acceptance is always out of his reach no matter how perfect he is. At the same time, he’s apart from the Black community as well. The majority of Black people in France at the time were slaves and as one of the only free elite, Joseph was very much on his own. Despite his fame and talents, there’s a loneliness to him that he carries throughout the film.
It is great to finally see Joseph Cologne get the story and recognition he rightfully deserves, and Chevalier is a wonderful start to that. It’s a solid period piece biopic that explores his brilliance. Kelvin Harrison Jr. shines in the role. It may be missing that special something that takes the film to the next level, but its Joseph Cologne’s captivating life that rings the loudest. His is one legacy that cannot be buried or forgotten.
Kelvin Harrison Jr. hits all the right notes in his portrayal and finally puts Joseph Bologne front and center where he should be. Chevalier is about the inequity among the French ancien régime. It’s about the racism, sexism, and classism that occurred. And it doesn’t matter how ‘perfect’ any person can be when these ideologies are ingrained in society.