‘Chevalier’ Explores the Little-Known True Story of the Black Composer Who Dazzled French Society
Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.
There’s been a recent explosion of period pieces that include Black characters in positions of nobility, like the “Bridgerton” series and the film “Mr. Malcolm’s List.” You can’t blame Black audiences for desiring to watch period pieces set in the much-romanticized Regency era; we were there too, after all. But what’s not often explored in these pieces is the cost one had to pay to achieve and maintain that status in their white supremacist society, particularly when slavery was very much still happening.
With so much “capaganda” (capitalist propaganda) on our screens encouraging us to sympathize with and aspire to be like the most wealthy, it’s no wonder that Black-centered stories of nobility usually ask us to pay no attention to the pile of bodies left in their wake.
But Canadian director Stephen Williams’ “Chevalier” refuses to play that game. Instead, it stakes its thesis on the trap of so-called “Black excellence,” which we’re taught to covet and aspire to.
Starring Kelvin Harrison Jr. at his career best in the title role, “Chevalier” tells the hidden true history of late-18th century Black creole child savant, master violinist, champion fencer and composer Joseph Bologne, named Chevalier de Saint Georges by Queen Marie-Antoinette. While he’s insultingly referred to as “the Black Mozart” by those hoping to emphasize his brilliance by pairing him with his white contemporary, “Chevalier” immediately puts that comparison to rest.
In the opening scene, with stunning music by soon-to-be-legendary composer Kris Bowers, Bologne duels with Mozart on the violin, with Bologne playing Mozart’s own work better than he could’ve imagined, utterly humiliating Mozart and leaving him asking, “Who the f**k is that?!”
Though in real life, this public duel never happened and Mozart probably knew Bologne very well as they were colleagues and lived in this same building for a time, but the point stands. If you’ve never heard of Bologne, know that this was intentional. Imagine being so brilliant that the racist Napoleon Bonaparte demanded that your work be destroyed and your name forgotten. For too long, that was Bologne’s fate. Historians have pieced together fascinating details about this Black and excellent virtuoso, many of which appear in the film.
Born enslaved on a plantation in Guadeloupe, Bologne stood out as a musical prodigy on the violin. In the film, his French enslaver and father, Georges de Bologne Saint-Georges, takes Bologne away from his Senegalese mother Nanon (an incredible Ronke Adekoluejo) at 7 years old to study in France. His father’s wealth isn’t quite enough to secure him a spot in the white school, but when Bologne plays the violin for the racist headmaster, there’s no turning away this prodigy. As his father leaves him, the only Black person at the school, with no mother and no family, Georges instructs Bologne to be “excellent,” and no one will ever deny he’s a true Frenchman.
Ironically, it’s “the talk” that most Black children get from their parents when they’re being trained to survive and excel in white spaces: “be twice as good.” Of course, the second part of that idiom is you’ll only go “half as far,” but, the goal is to be farther ahead than you were and definitely to be accepted as much as possible in white spaces.
Bologne takes his father’s instructions to heart and becomes indisputably twice as good as his white counterparts. He speaks several languages; defeats white opponents to become a fencing champion; composes and performs in front of large crowds; he even wins the attention and affection of the queen of France who names him a “true son of France,” when he becomes a chevalier (an honorary knighthood). It’s enough to convince him that he can get what he wants: to be the next conductor of the Paris Opera.
When Marie-Antoinette tries to dissuade him from the pursuit, now that he is a chevalier, he responds “There are countless men with titles in France, but only one head of the Paris Opera.” He knows that running this world-class institution will solidify his place, not only at the top of the elite white society he was raised to covet but also in global music history. “There is no greater post and I want it.”
While he is the obvious man for the job, Marie-Antoinette forewarns him that the judging committee loves German composer Christoph Gluck, despite the fact that he’s not even French. She encourages Bologne to prove he is the better man for the job and she’s said nothing but a word; Bologne has been successfully brainwashed his entire life to show and prove. He knows he’s the better man for the job and believes his unmatchable talent will be enough.
In front of French society, Bologne challenges Gluck to a competition for the job. Marie-Antoinette sets the parameters: compose an original opera and perform it for the judging committee. The winner shall be awarded the role and his opera will premiere at the Palais Royale. Gluck has no choice but to accept.
In the midst of this, Bologne’s father dies back in Guadeloupe and has left him none of his estate but has freed his mother from slavery and sent her to Paris to live with him after decades apart. (The filmmakers have taken creative license here; his father and mother both came to live with him two years after he first came to France. His father did, however, leave his whole estate to his legitimate daughter.)
Just as Bologne is so close to reaching and maintaining the heights of white acceptance in the film, his Black mother comes to pull him back to earth. Though she is happy to see him, she is a stranger to him and he to her in his blonde powdered wig of a chevalier. When she speaks Wolof with a Senegalese seamstress in his presence, he reminds her that they don’t talk like that here. “French is the preferred language,” he tells her.
When he lavishes her with fine, expensive dresses, she reminds him that the money could be spent on food to feed a whole city. He counters that she deserves the best; but when he cuts her off from talking about how his father stole him from her, it’s clear what his top priority is. If he is to maintain Black excellence, he must appear to come from Black excellence: a French-speaking, fine-dressing free woman, not a formerly enslaved one with Wolof on her tongue. Let the past be the past, he tells her, as he proudly takes on the name of his enslaver father’s plantation, “de Saint Georges.” As he continues his ascent, his mother’s presence in the background is a constant reminder to him and the audience of just who he is leaving behind to get ahead.
Only temporarily distracted, Bologne gets back to work on the opera with the help of some friends and a married white opera singer he’s been fawning over, despite the fact that her husband is a violent marquis and directly threatens him to stay away from his wife. In the midst of creating and rehearsing the opera, he begins a torrid affair with her. Sometimes, in the striving to reach the heights of white supremacy, a white romance is the ultimate validation that you’re on your way.
His lover makes such an assessment and he pretends to be offended by it. “It is illegal for someone of my complexion to marry someone of my class,” he tells her. It’s not that he necessarily “prefers” white women, he says, it’s that he would have to give up his title and his class if he married a Negro. And he didn’t come this far to turn back!
Bologne’s pickle is instructive and inevitable for the pursuit of Black excellence as a goal: You must separate yourself from Blackness. You must be anti-Black, if not in spirit, at least in practice. And, with enough practice, what’s really the difference?
His mother tries to gently steer him away from what she knows is coming to him: the Great White Disappointment. The moment when you realize that no matter how undeniably excellent you are, to these white folk, your Black ass is still Black — and therefore deniable. But he rebuffs her at every turn. The pursuit of Black excellence is all he knows. When she tries to tell him that he got his musical gifts from her side, he barely acknowledges the statement. When she tries to get him to incorporate some Senegalese tunes into his opera, he refuses. “There are standards that must be honored,” he tells her. Wolof sounds and melodies don’t make the cut for what he’s crafting to impress the committee.
He finishes composing and performs his opera; his white mistress prima donna in the starring role, it is everything they asked for and more. And it doesn’t matter. It was never going to matter.
After his drunken outburst when he is passed over for the job, he loses his society friends — especially an “after all I’ve done for you people!!” Marie-Antoinette.
At his most broken, it’s his mother who takes him to the African corners of Paris and reroots him in his culture and community. The musical prodigy sits in the drum circle, learning from the drummers. As he rearranges the rhythm of his heartbeat to their tune, he begins the process of divesting.
Without the powdered wig, he performs his new music rocking cornrows with the proceeds going to help feed the poor. Bologne went on to help organize and fund the revolution that would cost Marie-Antoinette her head.
Thank God for Black mothers who ground their children in liberation over excellence.
Brooke Obie is an award-winning critic, screenwriter and author of the historical novel “Book of Addis: Cradled Embers.”
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