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Joseph Bologne, also known as Chevalier de Saint-Georges, showed prodigal talent in nearly everything he pursued. His musical feats as an instrumentalist and composer sing passionately, but are silenced by the rich and the racist. Directed by Stephen Williams and written by Stefani Robinson, the film “Chevalier” turns the volume back up and gives Bologne a space to shine. However, the film lacks the depth that nuances his story.
The film follows Bologne (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) as he catches the eye of French aristocrats for his athletic capabilities in fencing and music critics for his mastery of the violin. This popularity leads Bologne to be involved with Marie Antoinette, (Lucy Boynton), who awards him the title of Chevalier, a title of nobility, and proceeds to hold him as a very close confidant. Additionally, Bologne meets Marie-Josephine on his rise to fame — A singer, played by Samara Weaving, who is married to a French Marquis, though she finds herself falling for the Chevalier and the two have an affair.
Another important addition to the plot is the numerous scenes of Black joy. One scene that exemplifies this theme is where Nanon (Ronke Adekoluejo), helps her son connect back to his roots. The film represents Black culture equally as well toward the end, where the Chevalier wears cornrows in favor of the classic European aristocrat wig or or ponytail. The film refreshingly addresses racism in the eighteenth century by choosing to focus on the strength and camaraderie of Black people, as opposed to producing yet another trauma narrative.
Superficially, the film is cheerful, gorgeous, and seductive. With the use of natural sunlight and warm yellow lighting, along with gorgeous period clothing and architecture, the film seamlessly transports viewers back to the eighteenth century. The acting is a particularly special ingredient to the film’s feeling as well. The actors — specifically Harrison Jr., Boynton, and Weaving — demonstrate clear chemistry that adds substantially to the dramatics of their secret romances. The film’s special attention to Bologne’s rumored affairs makes for an entertaining and aesthetically pleasing production.
Joseph Bologne took advantage of his education as a free man to learn how to fence, dance, ride horses, and play the violin. He was well known in the world of music, but also politics and athletics. Bologne’s story is a complex one, full of resolve and triumph. In “Chevalier,” however, his story is terribly underrepresented in favor of detailing the romance shared between him, Marie Antoinette, and Marie-Josephine. In this way, the film takes the spotlight off of Bologne, and puts it back on his oppressors. This is emphasized by how the only love interests in the film are aristocratic white women, and how the film makes the interactions with these love interests its focal point.
There is not nearly enough attention being paid to the importance of Bologne’s artistic and political contributions. Short clips from Bologne’s transition from the plantation to life as a free man in France are included at the beginning, and a couple of typed slides detail how he led 1,000 men in Europe’s first Black regiment. But this sprinkle of significant history cannot save the movie from the way it emphasizes rumor and speculation over historical facts. Bologne deserved to have a film that represents the most important parts of his character and achievements, and “Chevalier” glosses over it.
“Chevalier” cannot be saved by its alluring visuals and dramatic acting. It evades the integrous task of uncovering the meaningful parts of Bologne’s career. Yes, reducing Bologne’s life story to a one-hour-and-47-minute feature is an unfair ask. But is it unreasonable to focus more on his musical and political legacy and less on the rich white women he allegedly slept with?
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