'Chevalier': Black violin virtuoso largely erased from history takes centre stage in movie
Kelvin Harrison Jr. trained for six hours a day, seven days a week for five months, to display Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Joseph Bologne's musical skills
Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Joseph Bologne, was a violin virtuoso, composer and fencer in 18th Century France, but the history of this man, often referred to as "Black Mozart," has largely been erased.
Now Atlanta writer Stefani Robinson has crafted the story of Bologne for the screen with the movie Chevalier (now in theatres), directed by Canadian Stephen Williams, starring Kelvin Harrison Jr., Lucy Boynton and Samara Weaving. It focuses on the time of Bologne's falling out with the Queen of France, Marie Antoinette and her court.
"I was embarrassed to admit that I had literally never heard of this person who was so accomplished," Williams told Yahoo Canada. "Then once I started kind of exploring and investigating more, acquainting myself and educating myself more about Joseph Bologne's life, I started to see that there was a kind of cultural relevance to some of the events that were unfolding in pre-revolutionary France and our present moment."
"The more things change, the more they stay the same. That was inescapable in reading the script and acquainting myself with the events of Joseph Bologne's life."
Who was Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges?
Born on the island of Guadeloupe in 1745, Bologne was the illegitimate son of an African slave and a French plantation owner. His father sent him to Paris as a child, where he studied at the prestigious La Boëssière Academy and proved to be a particularly gifted learner.
Writing some of the world’s first string quartets, Bologne was made an officer of the King’s Guard and became known as Chevalier de Saint-Georges in 1762.
He was set to be the first person of colour to head the Paris Opera, but racism prevented that from happening and he ultimately rebelled against the aristocracy. Bologne went on to lead the first all-Black regiment in the French Revolution.
Bologne died in 1799 and in 1802, Napoleon Bonaparte reinstated slavery in France, and Bologne's musical works were destroyed, and largely forgotten. As his music has been rediscovered over time, Bologne is recognized as the first known Black classical composer.
For Williams, the director felt a personal connection to Bologne as he continued to learn about the virtuoso's story.
"On a personal level, Joseph was from an island in the Caribbean, Guadeloupe, and he made his way to Europe, taken by his father at a very young age," Williams said. "I was born in another Caribbean island, Jamaica, made my way to Europe at roughly the same age as Joseph."
"So there were many aspects of the trajectory of his personal journey and his life that I recognized, and that I identified with, and connected to."
For Harrison Jr., the way Bologne presented himself in this French society was particularly interesting, prompting him to take on the lead role in Chevalier.
"I found it fascinating that a man can be the only Black man in French society at this level, and to kind of move the way he does, because most of us feel like we need to diminish ourselves and become really small in these spaces in order to survive," Harrison Jr. said. "Joseph kind of was like, no, you'll see me and you'll see my talent."
"I thought it was kind of fun and playful. I liked his confidence, that I think I turned it into a little bit more cockiness."
The actor, who was raised in a talented musical family, described the preparation process as "very intense," having to transform into a violin virtuoso with masterful fencing skills.
"They did not let up on me, they said we want to honour Joseph in the fullness of what he brought to the table," Harrison Jr. said.
"My dad gave me a system, which consisted of six hours a day for seven days a week, for five months. ... That was that was definitely very scary, but it was exciting."
'I did want it to feel almost operatic in how it was told'
When it came to translating the impressive story for a film, Robinson didn't just want to create a standard biopic, she wanted it to feel "operatic."
"I think it was important to showcase the music of it all, because that was also the thing that just really attracted me to his story, that he was such a phenomenal musician and he was, by all accounts, a rockstar of his day," she said.
"I think because I am a creative, his creative journey was the thing that I think spoke to me. ... I understand what his relationship was like, being a Black person who was pressured into being excellent, ... had never really stopped working and leaned into his pursuits as a way of, I think, essentially just surviving the time."
One barrier Robinson had to contend with was the fact that there aren't any accessible firsthand accounts of what Bologne was feeling, particularly when he rebelled against the monarchy.
"There were no letters that spoke to this from him, there were no diary entries that spoke to this feelings," she said. "We sort of took the clues and the information in the facts that were there."
"We don't have proof that these are the things that radicalized him, or change his mind, ... but our artistic liberties to what was spiritually probably true was, ... if these things happen, ultimately they probably did in some way contribute to a sort of shift in ideological perspective."
'I have a lot of sympathy for a lot of these female characters'
The story of Chevalier also places significant attention on Bologne's relationship with Marie Antoinette (Boynton) and his love affair with Marie-Josephine de Comarieu, wife of the Marquise de Montalembert.
Robinson stressed that she ultimately wanted the supporting women in the film to "have their own agency" and not just be one-note characters.
"I just wanted to get into understanding why they were doing what they're doing, even if it was unsavoury, or cowardly or complicated, that they all seem complicated and layered, and not necessarily villainous for the sake of being villainous," Robinson said. "I have a lot of sympathy for a lot of these female characters and Marie Antoinette being one of them, someone's interpretation could be that she is a villain and ... she's so horrible in this movie, ... and I think those things are probably true."
"[But] she is a young queen, she didn't ask to be queen, she was married off when she was a teenager. ... The entire country is criticizing this poor woman. ... For so many years, she was unable to give her husband a male heir, which made her life incredibly disposable in a way. ... I don't think that she could trust many people and so when you, I guess, understand her as the person and why she's making the choices that she's making, some may say that she's just doing the best she can."
Boynton highlighted that she believes if Marie Antoinette was villainized for the things she does to Bologne in the film, it would have been "more legitimate" than the criticism she did receive.
"Instead, she has been villainized for things that she had no control over, for example, giving bad advice to her husband, the King," Boynton stressed. "I think I had to approach research by just putting all of that away, putting all of these preconceived ideas about her down and starting from scratch."
"I think that enabled me to start with a really open minded idea of an interpretation of why she is the way that she is, and learning about how young she was when she entered the French court. ... Women weren't educated, they were told that they were breeders. So therefore, their actions don't really have much consequence. That, combined with how sheltered her life was in Versailles, I think informed so much of the performance and how I understood her way of thinking."
Boynton also identified that Marie Antoinette is "quite aggressively the main character of her own story," and when she recognized Bologne's talents, there was "a self-serving motivation where she wanted to be seen with him."
For Weaving, playing Marie-Josephine, the actor was particularly attracted to embodying someone who was written as "a powerhouse of a woman."
"I just was astounded that this is a real person and she took such insane risks and was so brave, because ... being a woman in that era, your class and status was directly correlated to who your father was, or to who your husband was," Weaving said. "You had no choice or say in the matter."
"Women couldn't own land, or have income, or work at all. So I can't believe that Marie-Josephine actually went against her husband's wishes and said, you know what, I'm not accepting this reality. I want to sing I want to create, ... I want passion, and just went for it. I think that was both naive and super brave, and that's why I love her."
Weaving herself was also moved by now much the content of this period drama is still so relevant today.
"I think that is the heartbreaking thing about it and that's what made me really think when I read the script," Weaving said. "Yes this is hundreds of years ago, but it's still not as foreign as I would like."
"A year after we finished filming, they reversed the abortion rights [in the U.S.]. I couldn't believe it. I was like, we're still fighting these men that want to tell us what to do with our bodies. I think there's so many human rights issues that are dealt with in this film that are still happening today, which is super depressing."