Review of ‘Chevalier,’ a true story of a black musician ruined by prejudice

June 29, 2023 Mario Bautista 417 views


‘CHEVALIER’ is the little known true story of a black violinist-composer Joseph Bologne, also known as the Chevalier de Saint Georges who gained fame just before the French Revolution. He is played by Kelvin Harrison Jr., who impressed us in “Luce” and “Elvis” as BB King.

The opening scene shows accomplished musician Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Joseph Prowen) doing a concert on stage. He asks the audience what piece they want him to perform and they request “Concerto No. 5”.

From nowhere, Joseph volunteers to perform with Mozart, who initially underestimates him but he quickly impresses not only Mozart but also the crowd and the concert turns into a duel of violins playing cadenza pieces.

Joseph was born in 1745. His mother is a Senegalese slave, Nanon (Ronke Adekoluejo) who works in the French colony Guadeloupe plantation owned by his French father, George Bologne (Jim High).

His father quickly saw that he is very talented and enrols him in an exclusive musical conservatory in Paris.

At first, the school’s head belittles him but is quickly awed when he starts performing superbly on his violin. In school, his white classmates bully and harrass him. But he continues to impress everyone, not only with his music but also with his skills in fencing.

He is the first composer of African descent who gained widespread acclaim in Europe. He even gains the admiration of the Queen, Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton), who honors him by making him a Chevalier or Knight.

He then becomes a friend of the Queen and attracts many women. One of those infatuated with him is Madeleine Guimard (Minnie Driver), a mature opera singer. But he is more attracted to Marie Josephine (Samara Weaving), who happens to be married to the Marquis Marc Montalembert (Marton Csokas.)

Although he is favored at court for his musical prowess, many folks still discriminate against him because of his color. They join forces to stop him from achieving his goal, which is to become the director of the Paris Opera House.

The committee in charge chooses his rival, a white guy, Christoph Gluck (Henry Lloyd Hughes). He seeks the help of a countess to help him produce an opera that will impress the committee members.

He asks Marie Josephine to be his lead singer and she defies her husband who won’t allow her to perform. They start to have an affair and this signals his fall from grace while political upheavals erupt leading to the storming of the Bastille. Joseph is previously oblivious about the social discontent and restive political climate of the time, and the oppression of peasants in France, but he now realizes the hard truths about the inequality around him.

Marie Antoinette tells him he’d never be the head of the Paris Opera because he is black. The husband of Marie Josephine confronts him and threatens to break all his fingers if he’d ever see his wife again, who later gives birth to a black baby so he had it killed.

Now an outcast, Joseph becomes closer to his mother from whom he was earlier alienated and he also learns to accept his skin color. He later composes a new concert in support of the French Revolution in which he later became a leader of the all black infantry.

The film is directed with style by Stephen Williams, a TV director best known for “Lost” and “Watchmen”, who treated it like the glossy costume TV dramas “Bridgerton” and “The Gilded Age”. It focuses on romance and court intrigues but also condenses the story of an influential black man within the confines of the historical genre usually reserved for more privileged white people.

He makes this a compelling story of a gifted musician whose work is hidden from history as ordered by Napoleon Bonaparte and not given the credit he deserves. You might want to research more about Chevalier after watching the film.

Kelvin Harrison Jr. shines in the title role, his performance in this underdog story resonating as he shows the pain and agony that Joseph went through with the racial bigotry and intolerance around him.

Samara Weaving gives excellent support as his inamorata, imbuing her performance with tenderness and elegance. Kelvin and Samara are touching in that scene where they discuss what marriage means to them. As a whole, the film succeeds to be a heartwarming tribute to a great talent who is marginalized by racial hate and prejudice.